The NFC rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat the AFC 55-52 in the highest-scoring Pro Bowl in history on Sunday, and probably the most thrilling NFL all-star game.
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.
And it wasn't over until Indianapolis' Mike Vanderjagt -- the automatic kicker 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.
Although Chad Johnson caught a 90-yard touchdown pass on the first play of his first Pro Bowl, the Cincinnati Bengals' brash receiver had a feeling even more spectacular feats were in store.
When the NFL's best are playing for nothing but pride and a millionaire's pittance in prize money, they still hate to lose.
"The other guys told me ahead of time, once the fourth quarter gets here, it's going to be competitive," said Johnson, who finished with five catches for 156 yards.
The veterans were correct. By the time the NFC won, Johnson's catch was a mere footnote in a Pro Bowl dominated by newcomers who weren't interested in a laid-back Hawaiian vacation.
"It's going to be tough to match, if I make it back in the future," said Bulger, who masterminded the comeback when he entered the game in the second half.
When the drama finally ended along with the game, several of the 41 new guys at the league's all-star game had great stories to tell -- and the NFC members had US$35,000 apiece. First-timers accounted for nearly half of the 86 players in uniform, and they scored 70 points.
"You're seeing some young guys that are really, really talented," AFC coach Tony Dungy said. "They played hard and showed they belonged."
Rookies -- including Bulger, Bly and Shaun Alexander -- figured in nearly every remarkable development in a frenetically entertaining game.
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, while NFL rushing champion Jamal Lewis scored a touchdown in his first game.
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. After all, defense always takes a back seat in Hawaii, 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 -- and they set another record with 1,022 total yards.
The teams also set records with seven touchdowns apiece. Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, who threw three TD passes, established records with 22 completions, 41 attempts and 342 yards passing.
The teams scored 27 points in the first quarter and barely slowed down. 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. Both teams scored more points than the NFC's 51 in 2000 -- the previous single-team high.
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.
"I just didn't think it was over, and I said that to the guys," NFC coach Andy Reid said. "I thought we were still in it."
Bulger, an injury replacement for Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, engineered two more scoring drives to pull the NFC within 45-40 -- and Bly then stepped in front of Manning's pass and rambled for a diving score. Moments later, Minnesota's Corey Chavous intercepted a tipped pass and returned it to the 2, where Alexander scored.
Manning threw a 10-yard TD pass to Hines Ward with 1:54 left. After Bulger threw an end-zone interception, Manning led the AFC into scoring territory.
Vanderjagt, who didn't miss a field goal or an extra point all season, was barely wide right on the final kick. 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.
"That's the way you want this game to be," Manning said. "It's for the fans, so you want to give them something good."
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