Kick-starting the offseason

HONOLULU – Fresh off his miss in the playoffs that cost San Diego a chance to beat New England, San Diego kicker Nate Kaeding faced yet another pressure-packed kick Saturday.

Kaeding’s 21-yard field goal as time expired gave the AFC a 31-28 victory over the NFC at Aloha Stadium. Not that this event will matter much in the annals of football history.

But it sure did matter to the pocketbooks of Kaeding’s AFC teammates.

"They might have hung me up by this vent (if I had missed)," Kaeding said, referring to the fact that the winners got $40,000. The losers got $20,000, which may account for the fact that the Pro Bowl seriously resembles a typical NBA game. Overall, there was more than $1 million riding on Kaeding’s kick.

The game gets a lot more interesting in the final five minutes when players realize what's really on the line.

"Hey, that extra cash pays off the trip," said Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, who brought his wife and parents. The Thomas clan will spend an extra week of vacation in Kauai. "Now, it’s a break even."

Or as San Diego nose tackle Jamal Williams (a real teammate of Kaeding) said after the game: "(Linebacker) Adalius Thomas had his video camera out and said, 'Your boy better make it.'"

Kaeding's kick helped the AFC hold off a furious dash for the cash by the NFC, which scored two touchdowns in the final three minutes to tie the game. Still, most of the game was played as at "cruise control," as both quarterback Peyton Manning and Jason Taylor put it.

Given that the game is more of an exhibition, here are five observations to consider as the NFL officially heads into the offseason:

1. NFC coach Sean Payton is one intense dude, but he made a questionable call. Payton, who helped New Orleans to its first NFC Championship Game appearance this season as a rookie head coach, can fool people from time to time with his sly grin and comfortable demeanor. But he definitely burns hot as the few minutes after the game showed. Kaeding's field goal was set up by a pass interference call against safety Adrian Wilson, who ran over wide receiver Chad Johnson.

The call looked pretty obvious to most people who weren't Payton. He made his opinion plainly obvious after the game when he yelled at the officials as he left the field. Not just yelling, but adding some salty language to it.

Afterward, Payton even declined to speak at length for fear he might be fined by the league for ripping the officials. Give Payton credit, when you already dropped 20 grand on the last play, you might not want to drop anymore.

All of that said, Payton’s decision to go for two points on the first of the two touchdowns in the final three minutes was a little silly. Go for one point and the NFC would have been in position to win 29-28.

2. Payton and the Saints survived a pretty brutal scare – quarterback Drew Brees dislocated his left elbow in the first quarter when he was hit hard. Fortunately, it was not Brees' throwing arm that was hurt and he'll be out of any action for about two months. It's the offseason, so it's no biggie.

But between Brees' injury and the tweaked hamstring that Jacksonville cornerback Rashean Mathis suffered Thursday during the NFL Skills Competition, the Pro Bowl continues to get less and less popular for owners and executives. It only takes a couple of injuries to kill a season.

3. Vince Young is more than a trivia answer. Young became the first rookie quarterback to ever actually play in a Pro Bowl (Dan Marino was elected in 1983, but didn’t play) and continued to show he's well on the way to being a dominant player.

Young wasn't stunning, but he didn't embarrass himself, either. He completed four of 10 passes for 71 yards, leading one scoring drive and moving the AFC into range for another score before throwing an interception. He also had a sweet 13-yard scramble to convert a third-and-10 situation and hit a 47-yard pass to Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson, which is just a little ironic considering the Texans decision to pass on him in the draft.

For a guy who some scouts thought would take years to develop, Young is a stunning player. Sure, he’s still a little wobbly when it comes to traditional throws, like quick outs and hooks. That stuff will come.

Having the confidence to know you belong is different. Not only was he the NFL Rookie of the Year in a very competitive year, but he showed himself to be the real deal this week among the NFL's elite.

"To be able to be here when so many people said I would struggle this year and not be ready to play is gratifying," Young said. "It was just good for me to be here all week and see how guys like Carson (Palmer) and Peyton (Manning) prepare. It's different and that's the stuff I need to learn."

Said Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor: "It's validation to be here that you belong among the best in the league, to have the players, coaches and fans say you belong. As competitive and athletic as Vince is, this is going to help him. It's fueling his fire.

"He's going to be one of the greats."

4. Brian Moorman needs to be more careful. By the time you read this, there's a good chance you will have seen the hit that Washington safety Sean Taylor put on Buffalo punter Brian Moorman.

In short, Moorman got lit up as he tried to run a fake and Taylor flew in for the takedown. The hit actually helped get the game going, but there was a quick second there where people had to be a little concerned for Moorman, who also had the ball go flying out of his hands to add insult to the moment.

"It took me a second before I realized it didn't hurt as bad as I thought it was going to," said Moorman, who ran up to Taylor to tell him "good hit" after the play.

When told he was really running way too high and exposing himself to a big hit, Moorman said: "Hey, I'm a track guy. I'm not supposed to be runnin' the ball like that."

5. Funny moments and quick hits. Even if the game didn't mean anything beyond the pocketbook, there were some entertaining moments:

  • Chicago return man Devin Hester put on a show that included a fake pitch during a 63-yard punt return. Hester, who wasn't caught very much last season as he set a record with six touchdown returns, was finally taken down by San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

"It's been a long time," Tomlinson said when asked when he had his last special teams tackle.

  • Wide receiver Reggie Wayne had a 72-yard touchdown pass among his six catches for 137 yards. The score was over Hester, a fellow University of Miami grad who had the rare opportunity to play cornerback in this game. On the way to the touchdown, Hester appeared to let Wayne score. Not really, said Wayne.

"No, he was trying to get me down," Wayne said. That play may be proof why Hester has no real position aside from return man.

  • The Tiki Barber Farewell Tour is finally over. Barber had seven carries for four yards and scored a touchdown in the first half. He also threw a pass that was intercepted by Ed Reed and caught another for an 8-yard gain. Barber got a nice standing ovation at the end.