HONOLULU (AP) — A nice day in Hawaii won’t erase the memory of an ugly playoff exit for the Atlanta Falcons, but it has to help ease the pain.
From coach Mike Smith to quarterback Matt Ryan, tight end Tony Gonzalez, running back Michael Turner and wide receiver Roddy White, the Falcons were everywhere in the NFC’s 55-41 Pro Bowl victory on Sunday, a game that never was as close as that final score would indicate.
“The Falcons were well represented today,” Gonzalez said in an understatement.
Atlanta had the best regular-season record in the NFC at 13-3 but was embarrassed at home 48-21 by the in the divisional playoffs. Still, the Falcons’ previous success led to nine players being selected to the Pro Bowl, more than any other team, with Smith running the show.
When Atlanta fullback Ovie Mugheli rumbled in for the first of the NFC’s seven touchdowns, the stage was set. Falcons players figured in four TDs.
Philadelphia’s was the starting quarterback but didn’t play after the first quarter. Most of the time behind center went to Ryan, whose first pass was intercepted. But he was 6 for 6 for 91 yards and two touchdowns the rest of the half as the NFC opened a 42-0 lead and was up 42-7 at the break.
Ryan’s prettiest play of the game was a 25-yard TD pass to Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, a timing play that brought to mind the receiver’s masterpieces with the now-retired .
Ryan finished 9 of 13 for 118 yards. Gonzalez, in his 11th Pro Bowl, had three catches to boost his Pro Bowl-record total to 42. His 4-yard TD pass from Ryan gave him four for his career, more than any other receiver.
Turner had a workmanlike 53 yards rushing on eight carries. Quarterbacks threw to White five times and he caught all of them, for 69 yards.
Not to be lost in the praise was Smith and his staff. Carolina’s Jon Beason, whose 59-yard interception return in the fourth quarter gave the NFC its 55 points, matching the Pro Bowl record for most by one team, praised the coach’s game plan. That’s right, a game plan in the Pro Bowl.
“We had a great scheme going against those guys,” Beason said. “The Atlanta coaches did a good job of putting us in a position to make plays and we did.”
MVP DeAngelo Hall had one of his team’s five interceptions and returned a fumble 34 yards for a touchdown to help. He won a new Cadillac for his efforts.
“I was just about to buy another SUV,” the cornerback said, “so to come out here and grab one for free, I like that.”
AFC quarterbacks Philip Rivers, and Matt Cassel each threw first-half interceptions in a performance ugly even by the historically low standards of this game.
Fittingly for this strange contest, center Alex Mack of Cleveland scored the final touchdown on a 67-yard pass play that featured two laterals with 16 seconds left.
Pro Bowls are, by their nature, laid-back affairs, seemingly played at half speed by players whose biggest concern is to get on the plane home without injury.
The AFC, though, took that attitude to an uncomfortable extreme early on before coming back to outscore the NFC 41-13.
The NFC led 42-0 after Steven Jackson waltzed through the AFC defense for a 21-yard touchdown — and there still was 4½ minutes left in the second quarter.
But just when it appeared it would be the most one-sided game in Pro Bowl history, eclipsing the Joe Theismann-led 45-3 NFC rout in 1984, the AFC scored three touchdowns in a row. The last came on the game’s seventh turnover, when Devin Hester tried to hand the kickoff return to Hall, but the ball fell to the turf. Montell Owens of Jacksonville scooped it up and ran it in 10 yards for the score to make it 42-21 with 10 minutes left in the third quarter.
With his seven extra points, tying a Pro Bowl record, along with two field goals, David Akers moved ahead of Morten Andersen (45) for most career Pro Bowl points with 52. The Philadelphia kicker would have had more but his 36-yard field goal try in the fourth quarter bounced off the right upright.
“Morten Andersen was a mentor of mine and I competed with Morten for a job in Atlanta and he taught me a lot,” Akers said, “so it means a lot to be able to pass a legend like that.”
The game returned to its traditional home in Hawaii after a one-year detour to Miami, much to the approval of the players involved.
Notes: A 70-yard punt by Mat McBriar of Dallas in the first quarter tied for second-longest in Pro Bowl history. … The state of Hawaii is paying the NFL about $4 million this season and next to keep the Pro Bowl in Honolulu. The location of the contest is up in the air after 2012. … Winning players got $45,000 apiece, losers $22,500. … The attendance of 49,338 was just shy of a sellout.