NFC 55, AFC 52
HONOLULU (AP)—When Mike Vanderjagt’s 51-yard kick wandered, wobbled and finally dropped outside the uprights, even the officials waving their arms looked a bit shocked.
After the incredible offensive feats in the highest-scoring Pro Bowl, a miss by the NFL’s most automatic kicker was the last surprise in a game that was anything but a Hawaiian vacation.
MVP Marc Bulger threw a Pro Bowl-record four TD passes, and Detroit’s Dre’ Bly returned an interception 32 yards for the go-ahead score with 4:50 to play during the NFC’s rally from an 18-point deficit in the final 13 minutes of a 55-52 victory over the AFC.
It wasn’t over until Vanderjagt, who didn’t miss a field goal or an extra point all season, was barely wide right on a 51-yard field goal attempt as time expired. A week after New England won the Super Bowl on Adam Vinatieri’s field goal with 4 seconds left, the NFC got just its second victory in eight Pro Bowls on a miss.
“It’s going to be tough to match, if I make it back in the future,” Bulger said. “We have all kinds of playmakers out here. I knew Dre’ Bly was going to make a play. They made plays when they had to, and for me to win the MVP is special. The quarterback is a reflection of the team, and everyone deserves it.”
Shaun Alexander had three touchdowns for the NFC, which scored 28 straight points in the fourth to set the scoring record for a single team.
I think the Pro Bowl is supposed to be offensive, like NBA All-Star games are,” said Alexander, who signed autographs with Bulger at an event earlier in the week. “We were talking about one of us needing to win the MVP. They picked the wrong guy, but it’s still cool.”
The 25th straight sellout crowd at Aloha Stadium loved this thriller, with both teams’ millionaire players giving their all for the paltry $35,000 won by each victor.
Defense always takes a back seat in this game, but never to this degree. With 42 points in the helter-skelter fourth quarter, the teams easily topped the 82 total points scored in 2000 (51 by the NFC, the previous team high)— and they set another record with 1,022 total yards, including 300 in the fourth quarter.
The teams also set records with seven touchdowns apiece. League co-MVP Peyton Manning established records with 22 completions, 41 attempts and 342 yards passing.
“We had the lead and started making some mistakes and let them get back into it,” said Manning, who had three TD tosses. “We got a little greedy with those reverse passes, and the NFC got hot in the end.”
With an incredible surge that had the stars dancing on the sidelines, several first-time Pro Bowlers—there were 41—led the way in a wacky game.
Just how crazy was it? The AFC set a Pro Bowl record with 31 points in the first half—and it stood for about two hours until the NFC scored 42 after halftime.
“I told them to just keep playing,” NFC coach Andy Reid said of his advice before the frantic final minutes. “Anything is possible in these games.”
Manning threw a 10-yard TD pass to Hines Ward with 1:54 left, and after Bulger threw an end-zone interception, Manning led the AFC into scoring territory. But he was sacked with 4 seconds left, and Vanderjagt barely missed for the second time in his three attempts Sunday.
Bulger, an injury replacement for Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb, led the comeback after sitting out the first half. He owed one of his completions to thousands of smart football fans, however: Atlanta’s Alge Crumpler scored a 33-yard TD in the fourth quarter on a pass play selected by online voters.
Denver’s Clinton Portis, another first-timer, put the AFC up 45-27 with 13:14 left, turning a 23-yard screen pass into a TD with a sideline sprint and dive. Portis celebrated by getting up and running full-tilt into the goalpost.
But Bulger engineered two more scoring drives. When Alexander scored on a 5-yard pass with 5:43 to play, the NFC pulled within 45-40.
Moments later, Bly stepped in front of Manning’s pass and rambled for a diving score.
The tremendous entertainment even extended to the sideline. Moments after Alexander’s third touchdown, set up by Corey Chavous’ interception and return to the AFC 2, the NFC’s Daunte Culpepper, LaVar Arrington and Alexander broke into an exuberant line dance to OutKast’s “The Way You Move,” to the vocal delight of fans.
This edition of the NFL’s 54th annual all-star game was a showcase for the league’s next wave of talent. When Green Bay’s Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila was added to the NFC roster on Saturday, he became the 41st first-time Pro Bowler in uniform.
“You’re seeing some young guys that are really, really talented,” AFC coach Tony Dungy said. “They played hard and showed they belonged.”
League co-MVP Steve McNair, who started but got just four plays, was in his first Pro Bowl after nine NFL seasons. Kansas City quarterback Trent Green and St. Louis kicker Jeff Wilkins waited 10 years for their first trips to Honolulu. NFL rushing champion Jamal Lewis scored a touchdown in his first game.
The fireworks began from the AFC’s opening play. When Bly stumbled to the turf, Chad Johnson streaked behind him for a 90-yard scoring catch from McNair on the first play of his first Pro Bowl.
Johnson, Cincinnati’s brash receiver, had five receptions for 156 yards. Bulger’s St. Louis teammate, Torry Holt, caught seven passes for 128 yards and a score.