HONOLULU — With a huge red lei around his neck and a wide grin that could have stretched across Oahu, Larry Fitzgerald held up the gleaming, silver MVP trophy. It sparkled in the sunshine as much as his game.
The only problem: It wasn’t the Lombardi Trophy.
Fitzgerald caught five passes for 81 yards and two touchdowns, 44-year-old John Carney kicked two fourth-quarter field goals, and the NFC rallied to a 30-21 victory over the AFC. The Arizona Cardinals’ All-Pro receiver, coming off a record-breaking postseason and a spectacular Super Bowl in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, earned MVP honors.
But he said the victory over the AFC, which featured three members of the Steelers’ defense, didn’t ease the pain from the Super Bowl.
“No, not one bit,” he said.
Fitzgerald also took home keys to a new Cadillac.
“I’m just glad we won, that’s the most important thing,” he said.
On a sweltering day, with 60 percent humidity, Kurt Warner started for the NFC and played just one series before making way for Brees. Warner was just 1-of-2 for 8 yards.
“I would’ve liked to have won last week and not this week, if I could switch them out,” he said.
Fitzgerald caught a 46-yard scoring pass from Drew Brees before the half and a 2-yard TD pass from Eli Manning for the go-ahead score with 4:07 to play.
The NFC defense took care of the rest.
Manning, making his Pro Bowl debut, was 8-of-14 for 111 yards. While big brother Peyton had better stats, 12-of-17 for 151 yards and a TD, Eli got the win.
“He didn’t play the whole second half, so it’s not about beating my brother, it’s just about having fun,” Eli Manning said.
The Manning brothers were the first quarterback brothers in Pro Bowl history. And Carney, who was a perfect 3-for-3, became the oldest player in the game’s history. He booted a 48-yarder with 2:06 remaining to make it 27-21 and sealed the win with a 26-yarder with 32 seconds to go.
Sunday’s all-star game ended a successful 30-year run at Aloha Stadium, with a sellout every year. The Pro Bowl will be played in Miami next year, a week before the Super Bowl. The NFL, which has been looking to increase the profile of the game, hopes to bring the game back to Hawaii.
The players, who spent most of the week by the beach and sipping umbrella-adorned mai tais, were pretty unanimous in wanting the game to return.
For Warner, the question now is whether this was his final game in the NFL or, as a free agent, will he opt to continue playing at age 38?
“I don’t know right now,” Warner said. “Again, when I have a feeling one way or the other, I’ll let everyone else know. I don’t have a time frame. This is the first time right now that I am done having to think about football for a while, and I’m going to enjoy that part of it, enjoy my wife, enjoy my kids and then we’ll make a decision as soon as we can.”
The AFC was looking to hula dance into halftime with a comfortable 14-3 cushion after Kerry Collins connected with Owen Daniels on a 9-yard scoring pass with 28 seconds left in the half.
However, that was more than enough the time for the NFC, with all its weapons.
The NFC took over at its 45 with 19 seconds left after a nice kickoff return by Clifton Smith. They ran two plays before Larry Fitzgerald hauled in Brees’ 46-yard bomb with fellow All-Pro Cortland Finnegan on his back as time expired to pull the NFC to 14-10.
It made for two huge end-of-the-half plays in consecutive weeks for Fitzgerald. But this time, rather than trying — and failing — to chase down James Harrison on his 100-yard interception returned for a TD, Fitzgerald was the one celebrating.
Fitzgerald also beat Finnegan on his second score.
“These guys are such elite players, it doesn’t take much time to get in the groove with these players,” Fitzgerald said. “These guys were great.”
The usual high-scoring affair surprisingly also featured plenty of defense. Despite rules such as no blitzing linebackers and safeties, the quarterbacks were feeling the heat, at times buried by the defensive line. None of the passes had any room for error on throws against the speedy defensive backs.
The AFC had a chance to take the lead late, but Julius Peppers got in the way. Down by six, the AFC started its drive on its 20 with 4:03 remaining and got to midfield. Peppers then swatted a pass by Jay Cutler with his left hand and came up with the interception that led to Carney’s 48-yard field goal.
There were three straight drives ending with a turnover in a span of about 2 minutes in the third quarter alone, including two by Collins.
The second led to the NFC’s first lead of the game, 17-14, late in the third quarter. Jared Allen stripped Collins from behind and scooped up the bouncing ball at the AFC 10. All-Pro Adrian Peterson, last year’s Pro Bowl MVP, finished it off with a 10-yard run.
Pinned on its 4, the AFC came out firing behind the league MVP. Peyton Manning completed passes of 20, 18, 22, 4, and 6 yards to five players before hitting Tony Gonzalez for the score on a high-arcing, 19-yard pass.
Gonzalez, who earlier this week indicated he may want out of Kansas City to play for a contender, easily outmaneuvered Seattle linebacker Julian Peterson before hauling in the pass and tiptoeing into the end zone. Gonzalez, also an All-Pro, finished with six catches for 98 yards.
On the ensuing series, Robert Mathis stripped Brees and gave possession back to the AFC.
Manning then completed a 22-yarder to Colts teammate Reggie Wayne before the NFC finally started playing some defense.
After the AFC reached the NFC’s 31, Peppers squashed Manning — and gave him a hand to get back up. It is, after all, the Pro Bowl.