LAS VEGAS — No one was going to mistake this for a serious football game. Not with celebrities Snoop Dogg (AFC) and Pete Davidson (NFC) serving as honorary team captains.
But the revamped Pro Bowl Games resulted in greater intensity than recent years and the first NFC victory since the AFC vs. NFC format was reintroduced in 2017. In front of 58,331 fans at Allegiant Stadium on Sunday, the NFC won 35-33 in the reimagined event that now consists of a series of skills competitions and three separate flag football games.
The flag games themselves were noticeably more competitive than the standard games of recent years, despite not being of the traditional tackle variety. The reduced risk of injury seemingly motivated players to go harder.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I think it turned out pretty well,” Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith said. “It got very competitive at the end, and I think that’s what they wanted.”
With the AFC entering the final flag game leading the overall scoring 21-15, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins led an NFC rally with three touchdown passes in the final game, which consists of two 10-minute halves. Cousins hit 49ers teammates Kyle Juszczyk and George Kittle for two of his scores, with Detroit Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown accounting for the other.
The move to flag football was a product of lengthy discussions between the NFL and its players and union, with all sides agreeing that the tackle format marked by uncompetitive play was not cutting it and turning off fans.
But the game was not without a somewhat unfortunate event, with Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett suffering an injury during one of the skills competitions. Reportedly a dislocated toe, the injury left Garrett limping badly.
Then there was Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey slamming into Miami Dolphins wideout Tyreek Hill, forcefully knocking Hill out of bounds at the goal line. Hill was fine, but the play drew an unnecessary roughness penalty — something no one expected to see in a contact-free version of the Pro Bowl.
Still, the idea of a game that doesn’t subject players to additional hits after a 17-game season was compelling to the participants.
“I definitely don’t need to take more hits,” San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey said. “So, I’m a proponent for it.”
The day featured what was likely Derek Carr’s final appearance in this city as a member of the Las Vegas Raiders. He drew a loud ovation from the locals during player introductions before having a mixed performance during Game 3 (two touchdown passes and an interception).
Smith, who played in the first flag game, led NFC quarterbacks with 239 yards and five touchdowns on 14-of-16 passing. Dallas Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb caught six passes for 102 yards to lead all NFC pass-catchers.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley had the AFC’s best passing performance, completing 15 of 20 passes for 192 yards and four touchdowns. Stefon Diggs led the AFC in receiving with four catches for 99 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown.
The AFC had the edge in the skills events, winning five of the eight competitions spread out over two days (including the Kick-Tac-Toe and move-the-chains events on Sunday). But the NFC’s ability to win two of the three flag football games put it over the top.
Look for the event to take a similar shape in the future as the league takes feedback from the players and fans.
“Overall, it was a very cool experience,” Arizona Cardinals safety Budda Baker said. “It was definitely a good experience for the fans to be able to see our faces, since we’re always in helmets. It was really good to interact with them.
“So, yeah, let’s keep it going, for sure.”