PRO BOWL 2008
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie of the AFC picked off a pass intended for Rams receiver Torry Holt. Cromartie intercepted two passes yesterday.
Cromartie picks up where he left off
Despite being outplayed in the second half and missing out on an extra $20,000, no AFC Pro-Bowler was about to get too down about the NFC's come-from-behind 42-30 victory.
Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh (two touchdowns) and Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie (two interceptions) both made strong cases for an MVP award if their team had held on to win. But the AFC managed just a Rob Bironas field goal after halftime and flashy Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson took home the hardware for the victorious NFC.
Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, who started the game and guided the conference to a 17-7 lead on 11-for-16 passing and a touchdown, was pulled after his third drive to give signal-callers Ben Roethlisberger and Derek Anderson opportunities to perform.
While the Steelers' Roethlisberger held his own with a short scoring strike to Houshmandzadeh for a 24-14 lead in the second quarter, Anderson, of the Browns, struggled in closing out most of the second half with just 10 completions in 26 attempts. He also threw an interception to end the game.
Manning didn't mind -- he's used to the Pro-Bowl format of share-and-share-alike in his eighth appearance. Still, it was tough watching most of the final three quarters from the sidelines.
"We sort of worked out the playing time a little bit," Manning said. "We were up when I was in there, but we just couldn't hold on.
"That's not the way you want to lose a game. You don't want to lose at all, but when you had the lead and kind of had the game in control, you don't want to let it go on offense."
Cromartie, who led the league this season in interceptions with 10, picked off both Tony Romo of the Cowboys and Jeff Garcia of the Buccaneers for his team's only forced turnovers on the NFC offense.
He only became a starter in San Diego's ninth game of the season, but Cromartie has since established himself as an essential player, as he was in bolstering the AFC yesterday.
In the second quarter, a Romo pass intended for Chris Cooley was tipped high by the Redskins receiver. Cromartie, playing 10 yards back, was in excellent position to collect the ball. He ran the pick back 56 yards before Romo knocked him out of bounds. It set up Houshmandzadeh's 1-yard score from Roethlisberger, the Bengal receiver's second of the game after taking a 16-yard scoring pass up the middle from Manning early.
"A good experience, a real good experience," said Houshmandzadeh, in his first Pro Bowl after seven years in the NFL. "It was cool. It was unfortunate we didn't win, but hey -- we had fun, that's all that matters."
Well, maybe not entirely -- Houshmandzadeh scoffed when asked if his expectations were set at the multi-touchdown level going into the game.
"Yeah, of course." he said. "I thought I was going to get MVP, but I came up a little short."
Cromartie's second pick was first in and out of the hands of Rams receiver Torry Holt, and the corner was quick to capitalize with a lightning-quick snatch and 21-yard return. He tied a Pro Bowl record with the second pick, which he said, "You could consider a bonus."
He gave credit to Kansas City end Jared Allen, who tipped Garcia's pass and caused Holt to misread the ball's trajectory, and deflect it into Cromartie's hands.
Nothing he does, including showing uncanny awareness as he did yesterday, surprises Cromartie after only two years in the league.
"Nope," Cromartie said with a grin. "Not at all. Just go out here and play football and have fun, that's the object of the game."
Manning could only shake his head at the 6-foot-2 corner, who picked off the Colts' star QB three times during the San Diego's 23-21 win over Indianapolis in Week 10 -- Cromartie's first start this season.
"Everything I thought (about him) was true," Manning said. "He showed tremendous ball skill, and a feel for being around the football. You saw that ability today. You don't see guys with that kind of size play with that kind of quicks and agility. He's a very gifted athlete."
Unfortunately, Anderson couldn't make anything happen out of the second turnover and the team never found a groove from that point.
The AFC was also hindered by a lack of effective running game; Roethlisberger was the team's leading rusher with 18 of the 45 total yards.