LAS VEGAS (AP) — From Darius Leonard’s rambling pick-6 on the opening drive to Mac Jones’ blissfully enthusiastic Griddy dance at the 2-minute warning, the Pro Bowl’s Vegas debut was a messy, chaotic show.
And Justin Herbert, Maxx Crosby and the AFC stars all won big.
Herbert hit Mark Andrews with two touchdown passes, leading the AFC to a 41-35 victory over the NFC on Sunday in the return of the Pro Bowl.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to come out here and play some of the best football players this game has to offer,” Herbert said. “What an opportunity to learn more about their game, understand them, get to know them and just have some fun.”
Jones passed for 112 yards and threw a touchdown pass, and the New England rookie also did a memorable rendition of the Griddy in the first Las Vegas edition of the NFL’s annual All-Star game, back from a one-year hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Herbert won the offensive MVP award after passing for 98 yards and finding the Baltimore tight end for two TDs in the first half of the Los Angeles Chargers star’s first Pro Bowl appearance. Andrews had five catches for 82 yards.
Crosby, from the hometown Raiders, won the defensive MVP award with two sacks, three batted passes and three tackles for loss in a pleasingly sloppy game featuring seven interceptions, with at least one thrown by each of the six quarterbacks.
“I didn’t want to injure or hurt anybody, but I still wanted to have some fun and work on my game,” Crosby said. “No matter what it is, we’re still in full pads and want to have a little bit of fun.”
The AFC has won five consecutive Pro Bowls since the league returned to a conference format in the 2016-17 season. Its players took home $80,000 apiece from Vegas, while the NFC got $40,000.
Kyler Murray passed for 160 yards and three touchdowns for the NFC. The Arizona star made it close when he hit Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook for a TD with 2:36 to play, trimming the AFC’s lead to six points.
Jones then got stopped on a scramble in the waning minutes, but kept running about 55 more yards to the end zone and celebrated alone with the Griddy, pioneered by Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson. After learning his celebration was premature, Jones hit Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris for a first down on the next play to allow the AFC to run out the clock.
The Pro Bowl moved to Las Vegas for the first time after a four-year run in Orlando, and a less-than-capacity crowd at Allegiant Stadium mostly cheered for the Raiders and booed their AFC West rivals. Otherwise there was a decidedly mellow vibe on the field from the moment Leonard returned an interception 45 rambling yards for a TD.
Both teams treated the Pro Bowl with all the seriousness it deserves: Tackling to the ground was rare while both teams effectively played two-hand touch, and neither defense put up more than a perfunctory pass rush.
The informal rules to prevent excessive violence were also quite flexible: Tampa Bay’s Antoine Winfield returned an interception 63 yards for a score to end the first quarter, but only after running through a pretty clear two-hand touch from Las Vegas’ Hunter Renfrow.
Renfrow got the day’s biggest single cheer when he made a tip-toe TD grab in the back of the end zone.
CAN’T KICK IT
In another attempt at violence-reducing innovation, the Pro Bowl was played with no kickoffs. The game started with the NFC offense on its own 15 in the so-called “spot and choose” method of eliminating dangerous kickoffs from football. The winner of the opening coin toss has the option to choose where to spot the ball on the field or whether to start the game with the ball.
Neither Pro Bowl punter got to play, either. AFC coach Mike Vrabel told Las Vegas’ AJ Cole earlier in the week that the team wouldn’t be punting — so Cole said he ate two hot dogs at halftime.
“I’m just here for moral support, basically,” Cole said. “Just passing out water and high-fives.”
WISH I WAS A BALLER
Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans went up and over the Raiders’ Denzel Perryman for a 19-yard TD catch in the first half. Perryman then went into the locker room at halftime and tweeted: “Lol i know i know, only if i was taller.”
BROTHERS GOTTA HUG
Buffalo receiver Stefon Diggs got to go against his little brother, Dallas cornerback Trevon Diggs, for the first time as professionals. Stefon even switched to defensive back when Trevon came in as a receiver for the NFC in the first half, and Stefon got credit for a pass breakup in the end zone after a good bit of hand-fighting between the brothers.
Stefon called checkmate when he juked Trevon to the ground at the goal line on a TD run in the third quarter.
The stars seemed to enjoy Vegas, even if many didn’t hit the casinos. New Orleans’ Cameron Jordan spent the week at various attractions with his wife and children.
“It’s been a setup that, with some tweaking, can be phenomenal,” the seven-time Pro Bowl selection said. “Sensational, even.”
The Pro Bowl will be followed to Vegas by the NFL draft in April. Super Bowl 58 will be here Feb. 11, 2024.
THE ABSENT GOAT
Tom Brady ended his NFL career by not participating in the final 13 Pro Bowls for which he was selected, including this season. The seven-time champion quarterback hasn’t played in a Pro Bowl since 2005.