After a week in Hawaii and a blowout game, the NFL’s all-stars are defending the Pro Bowl as a worthy reward for top players who don’t make the Super Bowl.
“I hope we keep it here and keep it here for a long time,” Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph said after winning Pro Bowl MVP in a 62-35 NFC win on Sunday.
Rudolph called the award icing on a cake of being named to the roster and getting to spend time with other Pro Bowl players in Hawaii.
“That was the big emphasis this week, making sure that we were competitive and I think we showed that,” he said.
The shenanigans were limited. The teams scored plenty of points. Yet the results were familiar — another ho-hum Pro Bowl.
Now, the future of the game depends on how Commissioner Roger Goodell sees it.
“That’s for him to decide,” Denver quarterback Peyton Manning said. “I thought it was a good, competitive game.”
Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson got the crowd pumped up in the second half with some nifty scrambles and three passing touchdowns. There was also Houston’s sack-happy defensive end J.J. Watt going out for a couple of passes as a wide receiver, and retiring Green Bay center Jeff Saturday snapping to two Mannings on opposite teams.
But while the NFC appeared unstoppable on offense, with nearly each player putting up fantasy-worthy lines in limited play, the AFC had five turnovers and scored most of its points well after the game was no longer competitive.
“Guys were competing, guys wanted to win and guys want to keep the game here,” Rudolph insisted. “That was the point before the game. We want to keep this game rolling for future Pro Bowlers.”
Watt, who had 20½ sacks for Houston, lined up as a wide receiver on the AFC’s third play from scrimmage, but missed a pass from Peyton Manning. He was targeted one more time, but didn’t make a catch.
He later showed a television camera a bloody left pinkie, joking with NBC broadcasters that it was proof that the players were trying.
“Hey, Commish, we’re playing hard,” Watt said as he showed his finger.
Watt said after the game that he wanted to stay in even as things got lopsided.
“I’m sure some guys thought about (letting up), but I’m not going to sit out,” Watt said. “I like to play football, it’s fun, so I just tried to enjoy it.”
Goodell has said the Pro Bowl won’t be played again if play didn’t improve this year. Last year, fans in Hawaii booed as lineman were clearly not trying. On one play in that game, Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen did a barrel roll to switch positions with a teammate.
If players were coasting this time around, it was less obvious. The AFC just played poorly. And fans didn’t boo much — the stands were relatively empty even though the game sold enough tickets to lift a local television blackout.
The game was trending on Twitter in the United States early on, but quickly gave way to the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the WWE Royal Rumble.
Saturday, retiring at the end of this season, played for both teams, though he came representing the NFC. He lined up on one play for the AFC to snap the ball one last time to Manning, his longtime former Colts teammate.
Saturday said it meant a lot to him that the Broncos quarterback, whom Saturday called a true friend, orchestrated the stunt.
“He’s got a little more pull than I got,” Saturday said. “He got it all set up and timed up for me, so it was really nice of him to do that.”
Saturday played 13 seasons in Indianapolis, all with Manning — except 2011, when Manning was out with a neck injury. Saturday then played later in the game for the NFC, snapping to Peyton’s brother, Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
Saturday’s last play on the field was a passing touchdown by Eli Manning.
Peyton Manning said it was nice for the NFL to allow the play to happen.
“It’s something that I’ll always remember,” he said, “that he’ll always remember to kind of get that one, final snap together after the thousands that we’ve taken together.”
Even as the NFC piled up touchdowns, the game struggled for memorable moments after Saturday’s momentary switch.
In the second quarter, referee Ed Hochuli drew cheers when announcing a pass interference penalty on Denver cornerback Champ Bailey in the second quarter — the first flag of the game.
“Yes, there are penalties in the Pro Bowl,” Hochuli said, drawing laughs and loud cheers.
Giants wideout Victor Cruz broke a Pro Bowl record with 10 catches. Tampa Bay receiver Vincent Jackson had 91 yards and two touchdowns. Eli Manning threw for 191 yards and two touchdowns.
Cincinnati’s A.J. Green had three TD catches for the AFC.
NFL officials said earlier in the week that the league wants to decide the future of the Pro Bowl by the time next season’s schedule is released in April.
“We understood exactly what (Goodell) wanted, guys were making plays all over the field,” Cruz said. “There was a little bit more high intensity than in years past and we were excited to play.”