In a Pro Bowl overflowing with touchdown passes and interceptions, the AFC on Sunday at Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium was able to earn its fifth consecutive victory over the NFC. Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard set the tone with a pick-six on the game’s sixth play of the game as the AFC jumped out to a lead it would never relinquish as the teams combined for seven passing touchdowns and seven interceptions. Here are five takeaways from the game.
- Defense dominates from the jump. What the Pro Bowl lacks in physicality and urgency, it makes up for in opportunism. In an opening salvo void of hard hits, the flashiest plays still came from defenses, not from offenses. Kyler Murray, Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes all threw interceptions in the first quarter. Kyler's pick, right into the hands of Darius Leonard, and Mahomes's wayward toss, a gift to Antonio Winfield Jr., were both returned for six; neither man was touched, save for half-hearted slaps. Cousins was stripped off the right side by T.J. Watt on the first play of the second quarter, resulting in a Myles Garrett scoop-and-score. Mac Jones got in on the pick action with his first regulation throw of the day. Wilson then threw another INT to a wide-open Derwin James. To top it off, Mahomes was stripped by Micah Parsons on the final play of the first half. Parsons had said leading up to his first Pro Bowl that he would channel the late Sean Taylor in his aggression in the NFL all-star game. The Cowboys rookie didn't quite level a punter, but he and his fellow defenders, who picked off each Pro Bowl QB at least once, were certainly more inspired than the offensive offensive play on Sunday. (Jeremy Bergman)
- Maxx makes an effort. Hometown hero Maxx Crosby made the most of his Pro Bowl debut Sunday afternoon. The Raiders edge rusher left his feet at the line of scrimmage to bat down three Murray passes in the first two quarters, including one on the first play, setting the tone for the day. Deep in the second quarter, Crosby even logged a sack of Cousins in the red zone, thwarting an NFC scoring effort. Crosby finished his all-star afternoon with five tackles, three for a loss, two sacks, three passes defensed and the game’s Defensive Most Valuable Player accolade. One of the league's feel-good stories, Crosby had a field day in front of his home crowd. (Jeremy Bergman)
- Herbert a highlight. Though Sunday’s exhibition is hardly the stage to accurately grade any all-star, Justin Herbert certainly looked sterling in his Pro Bowl debut. The only quarterback to emerge unscathed without an interception in the first half, Herbert was 7 of 10 for 98 yards and hit Ravens tight end Mark Andrews for a pair of scores before his final toss in the second half was picked off. It’s been five weeks since Herbert and the Chargers’ season came to a bitter end in Las Vegas and he returned to the scene of the crime Sunday and looked like his sensational self, earning Pro Bowl Offensive MVP in the process. Maybe he wasn’t as dazzling as he was back in defeat back in Week 18, but he was certainly a highlight in the AFC’s win. (Grant Gordon)
- Fourth-and-15 flops. Exhibition contests like the Pro Bowl are perfect venues to try out new ideas the Competition Committee is hesitant to adopt. Enter the fourth-and-15 alternative to the kickoff, a rule that allows a scoring team to opt to convert a fourth-and-15 play from its own 25 instead of kicking the ball back to its opponent following the extra point. Suggested and tabled at recent league meetings, it was adopted for experimentation at this year's Pro Bowl. The result? The AFC and NFC went a combined 0 for 8 on these attempts, resulting in short fields for their opponents and increased scoring. (Jeremy Bergman)
- Rookies don’t disappoint. A 15-time Pro Bowler just retired, though he wasn’t at Sunday’s festivities. And though it would be folly to suggest any player could ever follow the accomplishments of Tom Brady, it’s impossible not to wonder and prognosticate what lies ahead for the rookies who made their Pro Bowl debuts Sunday. Brady made the first of his aforementioned 15 all-star games in 2001 -- his second season. Following sensational first seasons, the likes of Parsons, Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts, Jones and Steelers running back Najee Harris had their highlights. Parsons, as he’s done since the preseason, commanded notice with eight tackles and a sack. Pitts caught a fourth-quarter TD as the NFC rallied to make things interesting and Jones, who was 12 of 16 for 112 yards and a TD, hooked up with Harris on a fourth-and-2 play for seven yards to salt away the AFC’s win. Just a play prior, Jones rushed for four yards but kept going all the way into the end zone before busting out his best Griddy. Sunday was all about the best of the best (or most of them) having fun, and it’s certainly fun to imagine if any of these first-year phenoms might well have played in the first of their 15 or so Pro Bowls. If nothing less, the future is certainly bright for Chargers offensive lineman Rashawn Slater, another rookie in the game, and the aforementioned quartet. (Grant Gordon)
NFL Research: This was the AFC’s fifth consecutive Pro Bowl win, as it’s defeated the NFC each year the game’s been played since reverting back to the traditional AFC-NFC matchup following three seasons in which NFL Legends picked opposing teams.
Next Gen stat of the game: Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby and Browns defensive end Myles Garrett each had five QB pressures, but Panthers defensive end Brian Burns had a game-high six pressures to go with two sacks and a 25% pressure rate.