I was planning on putting up this preview a bit sooner, but I'd forgotten that the Pro Bowl has switched from an NFC vs. AFC format to two NFL Network analysts being designated America's two older cousins who take turns divying up the rest of the family for America's most talented backyard Thanksgiving game. This year, those two analysts/Hall of Fame players are Michael Irvin and Cris Carter.
Last year, Drew Brees was designated a Captain of Team Jerry Rice and was able to draft all the other Saints (Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs, Jimmy Graham, and Cam Jordan) onto his team. This year however, Drew is but one of many quarterbacks (a replacement for an injured Ben Roethlisberger at that) so the Saints have a house divided. That means Jimmy Graham and Mark Ingram on one side and Drew on the other (Evans was elected to the Pro Bowl, but will miss it due to injury). Let's take a look at the two squads and the Saints they possess in what is, undoubtedly, one of the three or four most significant All-Star games of the year.
Michael Irvin, brazenly but unsurprisingly, took a whole bunch of Cowboys and they are all starting. Seriously, six different Cowboys are in the starting lineup for Sunday's Pro Bowl, including long snapper L.P. Ladoucer. As suspect as that seems, DeMarco Murray was the best running back in the NFL, the Cowboys O-Line was the best it's been since Emmitt Smith was around, and with Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Peyton Manning unavailable, Romo is as good a choice as any to start in the Pro Bowl. He's not an elite deep ball passer, finishing 13th in the league in 20+ yard completions, but it will be fun to watch NOLA's own Odell Beckham, Jr. playing the Dez Bryant role in the Team Irvin offense.
When Romo checks down, he'll have none other than Jimmy Graham as an option. Given the amount of success Romo has had throwing to Jason Witten over the years, I wouldn't be surprised if Jimmy got his second Pro Bowl touchdown in two years. For the sake of his recovery (especially considering his decision not to have shoulder surgery) I hope he comes out when Romo does and doesn't have to run too many out routes in the middle of the field.
Mark Ingram, recognized for a breakout season by being named as Marshawn Lynch's replacement in the game, will be the running back for the second unit, so he'll likely be entering the game as Jimmy's coming out. Ingram should get his number called for the entire second quarter if not more to balance the attack alongside Matt Stafford, and it could be fun to see what he can do behind a Pro-Bowl quality offensive line. Ingram's addition to the Pro Bowl probably does more harm than good to the Saints chances of re-signing him, but regardless he's a hard-working and likeable young man and I'm glad he's received this recognition.
As for the defense, they're unsurprisingly excellent, highlighted by DT Sheldon Richardson, S Eric Weddle, and LB Luke Kuechly. Normally I wouldn't bother mentioning defense in an exhibition like this, but last year both sides played with surprising gusto under the new system, resulting in a great deal of pressure and hits on Brees as thanks for the good deed of drafting Grubbs and Evans. As far as Special Teams goes, the most interesting guy on the squad is kick returner Darren Sproles, a charming and dynamic player with whom all of us are very familiar.
Cris Carter didn't show similar favoritism towards his former team, but that's probably because the Vikings are terrible and produced zero Pro-Bowlers. Instead, he has a team helmed by America's high school boyfriend, Andrew Luck. His enormous arm paired with the steady hands of Martellus Bennett and the anthropomorphized rocket fuel that is AJ Green should make for an exciting first few possessions. They're unlikely to run the ball much with an underwhelming Jamaal Charles starting.
The second unit is more interesting for those of us in the homer crowd. Drew will check in with the protection of OT Ryan Clady, OG Evan Mathis, C Jason Kelce, OG Josh Sitton, and OT Duane Brown, which will be the first really solid group he's had since the departure of Carl Nicks. Assuming that bunch can protect him and the second group swaps out entirely for the first, Drew should have some fun airing the ball out to WR's T.Y. Hilton and Jordy Nelson, checking down to TE Greg Olsen, and running some screens and swings to excellent RB Justin Forsett. Then he will hand over the ball to Andy Dalton in accordance with a weird Pro Bowl statute passed a couple years ago that states that Andy Dalton must play the entire second half of all these games so that America can go ahead and switch over to Big Bang Theory reruns.
Team Carter's defense has DE JJ Watt, CB's Aqib Talib and Patrick Peterson (Geaux Tigers), and a bunch of really good linebackers. Their special teams are highlighted by all-time great kick returner Devin Hester and long snapper Jon Dorenbos, who could long snap circles around L.P. Ladoucer. I'm sorry, but L.P. Ladoucer couldn't long snap his way out of a wet paper bag. I hate to bang on and on about this, and you can argue with me in the comments, but for my money, long snapping for "America's Team" shouldn't automatically make you an international brand ambassador for Nike.
Despite several botched long snaps, Team Irvin will prevail as Matt Ryan outduels Andy Dalton in the battle of the third string quarterbacks that the Pro Bowl inevitably becomes each year. Michael Irvin then gets to go to Canton and add a special gold star to his HOF plaque.
Final Score: Team Irvin 31-Team Carter 24
Tune in next year for my in-depth breakdown of Team Siragusa vs. Team Collinsworth!