Pro Bowl photos courtesy of Brandon Vaccaro
The world's greatest entertainers got together in the same building Sunday night, but that's not a reference to those gathered in Los Angeles for the 52nd annual Grammy Awards.
These performers were the All-Stars of the National Football League, who were competing one week before the Super Bowl for the first time ever.
Sunday's event also took place at the venue of Super Bowl XLIV, Sun Life Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins. The game itself featured some of the same explosive plays that figure to be a hallmark of next Sunday's big game featuring the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts.
Instead of recapping the game like every other preseason or regular season game story on 49ers.com, this column will provide highlights of the 49ers involvement in the Pro Bowl game as well as some additional observations. In case you missed the Pro Bowl, enjoy game notes filled with pictures, quotes and links.
The NFL Network staff was in usual high spirits even in damp conditions during their two-hour pregame show. For most of the broadcast, the on-air talent worked under a light rain.
But not to be confused, one of the show's guests clarified the weather status.
"It's not rain, it's mist," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell joked in an interview with Rich Eisen and Marshall Faulk.
Judging by the comments Goodell made, the commissioner seemed pleased with the NFL's new format for the Pro Bowl.
"We want to wait and see at the end of the event, but so far it's been a great success," Goodell said of potentially using the same format in 2011. "This is a way to make the event better and create a bigger platform for our players."
One of those players who would have thrived under that stage was 49ers linebacker Joe Staley, who decided to sit out of the game because of a slight knee injury. The trip was still a memorable one for Willis, who was surprised at practice on Friday by his high school coaches.
Although he did not play, Willis was gracious enough to do a pregame interview with NFL Network's Stacey Dales and Michael Irvin.
Here's a quick transcription of the interview:
Dales: What is this honor like for you?
Willis: I'm grateful. I thank God; I thank my teammates and my coaches. It's an honor to be here.
Dales: When you talk about coaches, what attributes has Mike Singletary brought, especially to your defense?
Willis: He talks all the time that there's a mindset you have to have to go out and play this game, you have to think big and that's what he brings to our team. Any time you have your leader like Coach Singletary, with the kind of heart and enthusiasm that he brings – it's a downhill affect.
Irvin: You look like you're in perfect shape, why are you not wearing the pads today?
Willis: I had a little injury to the knee which is nothing. I'm good, I'm fine.
Dales: With the 49ers sending their most Pro Bowlers since 2002, what can we expect from the franchise next year?
Willis: We're going up. We're going to the playoffs and I tell you, if we get into the playoffs… when we get into the playoffs, watch out.
Irvin: Put me inside a conversation between you and your coach, one of the great all-time linebackers, what type of conversation do you guys have?
Willis: We just talk about all the time in believing who you are and having a swagger about what you do. He tells me all the time, 'Pat, I know it may not be in your character right now, but you have to believe it. You have to walk about it. You have to want it and do it.'
Irvin: What do you mean by it 'may not be in your character?'
Willis: It just means because I'm young and some things you have to grow into. I think maybe I'm not as fast at getting there as I should be, but I'm going to get there. I promise.
Dales: The NFC has won the last two, are you going to get them again tonight?
Willis: (Laughs) We're going to win again tonight.
Even without Willis participating in the game, there were still four other 49ers to track: Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, Justin Smith and Andy Lee. It was also quite a busy game with 13 combined scoring drives from both teams.
Matt Schaub of the Houston Texans hooked up with his teammate Andre Johson on a stutter-go route for an easy 33-yard touchdown for the game's first points. Smith bull-rushed Alan Faneca of the Jets to the ground with his initial pass rush, but was unable to get to Schaub in time. Dan Carpenter of the Miami Dolphins tacked on the extra point to give the AFC a 7-0 lead.
Davis caught his first pass on a second-and-11 on the NFC's first drive. Davis was wide open and Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers found him for a 36-yard gain. Davis tried to get more yards but cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha of the Oakland Raiders did a nice job of latching on to his ankle like a ball and chain.
Lee saw his first action on David Akers' 47-yard field goal to cap off the NFC's first possession. You could hear one of the AFC players yell out, "Miss it!" But unlike a game of driveway basketball, Akers was unfazed by the trash talk and made his kick to put the score at 7-3 in favor of the AFC.
The AFC made quick work on their second possession and Schaub ended it with a 23-yard touchdown to Brandon Marshall of the Denver Broncos on a skinny post to give the AFC a 14-3 lead.
During the commercial breaks throughout the game the NFL aired a commercial to inform the public on ways to help Haitian relief efforts. You can text the word "Haiti" to the number 90999 to make a $10 donation or you can make other donations by visiting www.redcross.org. The 49ers are also making a donation to the relief efforts to aid the crusade of rookie defensive tackle , who has been actively raising money for the land of his decent.
The NFC scored its first touchdown when Rodgers completed a 48-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith of the New York Giants to make the score 14-10 in favor of the AFC.
The NFC forced a three-and-out on Vince Young's first drive under center ensuring that Shane Lechler of the Raiders would get at least one punt on the evening. He made good use of the camera time by booming a 54-yard punt. Lee was hopeful to get at least one punt himself unlike his previous Pro Bowl experience in 2007.
According to my colleague Scott Kegley: In the first quarter, Vernon Davis was in on 13 plays (11 offense, 2 special teams), Justin Smith was in on five plays by my count and Andy Lee was on to hold twice.
On fourth-and-seven from the AFC's 42-yard line, the NFC elected to go for the first down instead of punting the ball. Rodgers hit Jackson for a 12-yard gain. Lee's wait will have to continue for another possession.
Davis caught his second pass of the night for a 9-yard gain. Davis beat the coverage of LaMarr Woodley of the Pittsburgh Steelers on an out route with the pass coming from Rodgers.
The NFC took its first lead when Rodgers hit Jackson on a 7-yard touchdown thanks to the help of Davis, who showed his all-around game with a great kick-out block on Champ Bailey of the Denver Broncos. But another touchdown equaled another opportunity for Lee to take the field to hold for the extra point. The NFC jumped ahead 17-14 in what started to look like a seesaw battle.
Carpenter tied the game at 17 with a 30-yard field goal on another Vince Young-led drive.
Frank Gore saw his first action of the game on what appeared to be the game's first turnover. Donovan McNabb faked to Gore and found Woodley, who returned it a long ways for a touchdown. But the AFC had 12 players on the field. That, combined with a face-mask penalty on Davis by rule forced a third down mulligan.
Gore carried for the first time for a 2-yard gain, where he was politely tackled by Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis who simply held him up until the whistle blew.
The NFC was faced with another fourth-and-three, but Lee didn't get the call since they were inside AFC territory. Gore got the call instead on fourth down, but was swallowed up at the line by his college teammate, Vince Wolfork of the New England Patriots.
After the stop on downs, Carpenter missed from 36 yards out, and the score remained tied at 17 going into the half.
Lee was able to punt for the first time in the Pro Bowl after the NFC offense went three-and-out. Lee matched Lechler with a 54-yard punt of his own.
DeSean Jackson started the second half with a bang – a 58-yard touchdown to be exact on the second play from scrimmage. Jackson made the first claim of being a possible MVP. Davis had another great block on a Jackson touchdown. This time, he kicked out James Harrison of the Steelers allowing a running lane for the speedy Jackson to run through to give the NFC a 24-17 lead.
If Jackson won MVP, he definitely would have owed Davis some credit. Without the blocking services of the 49ers well-rounded tight end, Jackson would not have scored either of his touchdowns.
Vincent Jackson and David Garrard made sure the AFC didn't trail for long. They capped a two-play scoring drive with a 48-yard touchdown to tie the game at 24.
Strange sight on a number of reasons on the NFC's first play on their next drive. McNabb was intercepted by longtime Eagles teammate Brian Dawkins. Besides that occurrence, Dawkins pitched the ball to new teammate Champ Bailey who tried to pitch the ball a few times himself. Bailey's third attempt to lateral the interception was instant made for blooper reel material. He threw backwards to nobody in particular, but luckily Darelle Revis of the Jets was able to jump on top of the loose ball.
The AFC took the lead when Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars scored the game's first rushing touchdown from 4-yards out to make it 31-24.
The NFC went three-and-out in response, which wasn't all bad as Lee was able to punt for the second time. It's too bad he didn't have his 49ers teammates on the coverage team, because the ball landed on an NFC player and the contact downed the ball, making it a 36-yard punt.
Justin Smith made his first solo tackle in the red zone, stopping Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens for no gain. Two plays later, Smith sacked Garrard to force the AFC to a field goal. However, Carpenter converted a 26-yard field goal to give the AFC 17 unanswered points and a 34-24 lead.
Davis made his third reception of the game on a 22-yard deep crossing route from Tony Romo. It was Davis' last catch of the night, but he averaged 22.3 yards per catch, most of all NFC receivers with at least two catches.
Romo went 6-for-6 for 73 yards on the drive but it ended on the ground with a 7-yard rushing touchdown from DeAngelo Williams of the Carolina Panthers. The NFC's first rushing touchdown made it a one possession game and a 34-31 AFC lead.
Fourth QuarterAsante Samuels of the Eagles picked off Young in the red zone and returned 35 yards to set up the NFC in great field position to start the final quarter. But Romo was unable to lead a second scoring drive as he was sacked by Mario Williams on a third down. Akers' 39-yard field goal evened the game at 34.
Based on the ferocity of Williams' sack of Romo it looked like the competitiveness of both teams picked up and would be even more intense in the final 10 minutes of play. Case in point Josh Cribbs of the Cleveland Browns returned the following kickoff from seven yards into his own end zone.
Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans got into the scoring act in the all important fourth quarter. From 2-yards out he followed the blocks of Logan Mankins and D'Brickashaw Ferguson to make the score 41-34. It ended up being all the AFC would need.
Gore caught his first pass of the game on a 6-yard hitch from Romo. On the next play he caught a 5-yard pass and was tackled by fellow Miami alum, Ray Lewis.
Harrison iced the game with an interception of a Romo pass intended for Jackson down the right sideline. Jackson caught up with Harrison to make the tackle, but with 2:07 left in the game it was a crucial turnover.
The AFC ran out the clock, thanks to a fourth-and-one conversion by Ravens fullback Le'Ron McClain. Schaub, the game's MVP, called the "Victory formation," from the huddle and after a few snaps later, the AFC snapped the NFC's winning streak with a 41-34 win.
Davis: three catches, 67 yards, 22.3 yards per catch, targeted seven times.
Gore: two carries, four yards, 2.0 yards per run, two catches, 11 yards, 5.5 yards per catch.
Smith: three solo tackles, one tackle-for-loss, one sack.
Lee: two punts, 90 yards, 45.0 yards per punt, long of 54 yards.
For more Pro Bowl coverage check out 49ers.com's Pro Bowl Central Page.