Defense is rarely the main storyline at the Pro Bowl, but the AFC defenders took matters into their own hands Sunday in a 20-13 victory at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida.
The AFC beat the NFC in a game that featured zero touchdowns in the second half. It was a drastic change of pace from recent editions, including last year's 49-27 Team Irvin triumph and 55-41, 59-41 and 62-35 shootouts from 2011 to 2013, respectively.
The NFC had an opportunity to tie or take the lead in the closing minutes, but Lorenzo Alexander intercepted Kirk Cousins in the red zone. While he created additional drama with a lateral to Aqib Talib—who then fumbled and recovered when Cousins chased him down—it was the most important play of the game.
The NFL shared a replay of the turnover:
Alexander was named the game's defensive MVP, while Travis Kelce earned offensive MVP honors, per Around the NFL. Kelce tallied 36 receiving yards and a touchdown as well as a first-down conversion on a fake field goal.
NFL on ESPN highlighted their rewards:
This year, the conferences again squared off after the last three seasons featured mixed rosters picked by captains. The AFC earned revenge after it lost the Pro Bowl Skills Showdown earlier in the week.
Cousins led the way for the losing side with 158 passing yards—and a strip his team had a chance to recover—while Andy Dalton threw for 100 yards, one touchdown and an interception for the AFC. No running back tallied more than 21 yards on the ground (Jordan Howard), and Odell Beckham Jr. led all pass-catchers with 93 receiving yards.
The NFC sacked the AFC seven times, but the AFC notched two interceptions.
While there was no blitzing or nickel and dime looks in Sunday's game, the defenses established the tone early. The NFC punted on its opening possession, but Michael Bennett stripped DeMarco Murray on the ensuing drive. The Seahawks defender recovered the fumble to keep the game scoreless.
The NFC then drove to the 1-yard line, but a trio of Cowboys came up short. Dak Prescott's third-down pass to Dez Bryant fell incomplete, and the AFC defense stuffed Ezekiel Elliott on fourth down.
The AFC then punted, but its special teams responded and tackled Landon Collins on a fake punt during the NFC's next possession.
Paul Dottino of WFAN didn't want the Giants to get any ideas:
After a scoreless first quarter, the AFC broke the tie with a 26-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith to Delanie Walker.
The NFL shared the replay:
Despite the touchdown, the defensive theme continued with two straight interceptions. The AFC's Stephon Gilmore picked off Drew Brees in the end zone, but Richard Sherman intercepted Dalton on the ensuing possession.
Sherman's interception set the stage for the NFC's first score. Brees hit a wide-open Doug Baldwin for a 47-yard touchdown.
The NFL shared a look:
A couple of Kansas City Chiefs helped give the AFC a 14-7 halftime lead. Tyreek Hill returned a punt 38 yards to the NFC's 38-yard line, and Dalton capitalized with a touchdown pass to Kelce.
The AFC picked up where it left off with a methodical drive to start the second half. Justin Tucker capped off the 10-play, 55-yard march—which included a one-handed Demaryius Thomas catch—with a 38-yard field goal to make it 17-7.
The NFC offense continued to struggle, and a Greg Olsen drop on third down led to another punt.
Philip Rivers gave Los Angeles Chargers fans a taste of what they can look forward to on the next possession, when he led the AFC to another field goal to open a 13-point advantage early in the fourth quarter.
While Rivers was under center, trick plays defined the drive. The AFC converted a fake field goal when Kelce stretched for the first down after taking a pitch, and a fumblerooski was called back for a penalty before Tucker made his second field goal of the game on the drive's 15th play.
NFL Network passed along a look at the fake:
The NFC reached double digits with a Matt Prater field goal following a 42-yard pass from Cousins to Beckham, but the AFC defense held strong deep in its own territory to preserve the two-score lead.
Cousins again led the NFC deep into AFC territory on his next drive, but a sack by Von Miller and Geno Atkins and two incompletions forced another Prater field goal to make it 20-13.
Three consecutive sacks gave the NFC the ball back with a chance to complete the comeback effort, and Cousins marched into the red zone before his pass hit Jimmy Graham in the hands and bounced into Alexander's waiting arms.
While the AFC made the play it needed, Keely Diven of CSN Mid-Atlantic noticed something else:
The AFC took a knee from there and ended the defensive struggle with the victory.
Kelce commented on his MVP performance, per Conor Orr of NFL.com: "It feels pretty good. These are the moments to keep making life surreal ... It gives me a little motivation to keep striving to be the best."
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans appeared in just the first half in front of the home-state fans and discussed the experience, per Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times: "I'm a little dinged up. I wanted to play a few plays to get the experience. We have a lot of great guys and I trusted them. I didn't feel like I was ready to go full-go. Just some rest and chilling with the family."
Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi talked about his first Pro Bowl, per Jason Lieser of the Palm Beach Post: "I had a blast. I just wanted to stay in the game, have fun, compete, enjoy it. And I got a victory. First Pro Bowl, first win."