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Players' effort to determine Pro Bowl's future

(Reuters) - Being picked for the National Football League's (NFL) all-star game is an honor reserved for top players. It is a tradition, now in its 63rd year, that began more than a decade before the first Super Bowl was played.

But for the elite band of players chosen to represent either the American Football Conference or National Football Conference in Sunday's Pro Bowl in Hawaii, it can also be a mixed blessing.

For the many players who never get to experience the thrill of winning a Super Bowl, the annual Pro Bowl can be a career highlight. But it can also end their career if things go wrong and they suffer a serious injury.

Critics have slammed the game as a glorified exhibition, with some players opting to skip it and teams racking up huge offensive numbers against half-hearted defenses.

In 2011, the NFC won 55-41, tying the record for the highest score by a winning team. It was a record that did not last long.

Last year, the AFC won 59-41 as the teams combined to rack up 100 points for only the second time in the game's history. In 2004, the AFC scored 52 points but incredibly lost by five.

The NFL has not been amused by the massive scorelines and apparent lack of effort by some players and Commissioner Roger Goodell has threatened to cut it from the calendar unless the players began to take it more seriously.

The players have been warned and know they are competing for more than just their conference.

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, making his 12th appearance in the fixture, addressed his AFC team mates in the lead-up to the game and told them they should play hard.

"The past two years, the play in this game has been unacceptable," Manning said. "If it was a walk through, your coach would say it was a bad walk through. And that's why (the league) could try to cancel this game."

His team mates embraced the rallying cry and vowed to put on a real show.

"It's simple," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey told NFL.com. "Just play hard. Like you do on a Sunday. If you do that, the rest will take care of itself."

The game still gets impressive television viewing figures but it remains to be seen whether this year's fixture will be played hard enough to satisfy the NFL.

The NFL has said recently it hopes to make a decision on the Pro Bowl's future by the time it releases next season's schedule in April.

More than a dozen players have turned down invitations to play this year, citing injuries. The two sides have also lost a combined 15 players who are involved in the February 3 Super Bowl between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens.

Indianapolis Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, one of 30 players making their first appearance in the Pro Bowl, said he had every intention of treating like any other game.

"I guess some folks weren't happy with the play last year," he said. "But I think guys will take it upon themselves to keep this game going for many years to come and play hard."

(Reporting by Julian Linden in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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