HONOLULU (Feb. 10, 2007) -- Even while the star-studded AFC cruised to a comfortable lead in the Pro Bowl, Carson Palmer could sense a wacky finish lurking just beyond everybody's control.
"With this much talent, anybody could change the game at any time," the Cincinnati quarterback said. "You've got to expect something crazy to happen, because it will."
Palmer's hunch proved correct in the improbable final minutes -- but thanks to Palmer's poise and a costly NFC penalty, the AFC's Hawaiian vacation ended with another win.
Nate Kaeding kicked a 21-yard field goal as time expired to cap another strong drive led by Palmer, the MVP of the AFC's 31-28 victory in the 57th edition of the NFL's all-star game.
The NFC trailed 28-14 with 3 minutes to play before injecting a little drama into this normally mellow exhibition. Steven Jackson scored on a fourth-down TD run, and Ronde Barber recovered an onside kick to set up Anquan Boldin 's 47-yard TD catch from Tony Romo with 1:48 left -- followed by a tying 2-point conversion catch by Carolina's Steve Smith.
Suddenly, the AFC's $40,000 bonuses for winning the game were in doubt. But just as quickly as the NFC's playmakers got back in the game, the AFC got it together again.
"I had a feeling they were going to have one more shot," Jackson said. "These games are all about who lands the last punch, and Carson is a great player."
Palmer, who passed for 190 yards and two touchdowns, calmly got the AFC across midfield -- and then Arizona's Adrian Wilson, mistakenly believing Palmer's long pass had been tipped, leveled Chad Johnson at the goal line before the throw reached them.
The 39-yard pass-interference penalty put the ball near the goal line. San Diego's Kaeding easily made his field goal, setting off fireworks at sold-out Aloha Stadium for the talent-rich AFC's eighth win in the last 11 Pro Bowls.
Palmer threw a 42-yard TD pass to Johnson and a 72-yarder to Reggie Wayne, and Baltimore's Ed Reed intercepted two passes before the frantic finish. Palmer, who took over for Super Bowl MVP Peyton Manning after just two series, went 8-for-17 in his first Pro Bowl appearance after missing last season's game with a knee injury.
"This is all just a fun game," said Reed, who tied the Pro Bowl record for interceptions. "Carson made two great throws, and those guys made great catches. We needed those points."
League MVP LaDainian Tomlinson also ran for a score as the AFC underlined its regular-season superiority -- but until things got tight, neither side cared much about the result in the league's annual postseason showcase.
Instead, they welcomed new stars such as Vince Young -- the first rookie quarterback here since Dan Marino in 1984 -- and said goodbye to older pros who won't be back.
Tiki Barber, the New York Giants' running back who's retiring after a 10-year career, scored on a 1-yard run in the second quarter. Kansas City guard Will Shields, who appeared in his record-tying 12th Pro Bowl, also is contemplating retirement.
Baltimore's Adalius Thomas returned Marc Bulger's fumble 70 yards for a confusing score in the first half, but there was no confusion about the game's best play: Sean Taylor, the maverick Washington safety, broke the unwritten rule about hard hits in an exhibition when he viciously leveled Buffalo punter Brian Moorman on an attempted fake in the third quarter.
"Believe it or not, it wasn't as bad as it looked," Moorman said. "It was just hard. It took me a second to realize that it didn't hurt so bad, so I got right back up."
Tiki Barber threw an interception and rushed for just 4 yards on seven carries, but the veteran scored the game's first touchdown. He got a standing ovation from the crowd and his fellow players when a video tribute to his career was shown on the scoreboard with 1:58 to play.
"I've been ready for this for a while, and I've been expecting it," Barber said. "I'm excited. I'm not sad and upset that it's over. I'm just real happy that it happened the way that it did, and I achieved all that I have, and get to go out on my terms."
Romo passed for 156 yards in the second half, and San Francisco's Frank Gore made an early TD run. The crowd actually booed Romo in the second half as the NFC's early comeback attempt stalled, but the Dallas quarterback led three strong final drives.
He was stopped on a fourth-down quarterback keeper on the first drive, but after Young fumbled, Jackson made a gutsy scoring run on another fourth down with 2:54 to play. The NFC tried a fake on the conversion attempt, but Romo -- who had no trouble holding for kicks after his infamous flub in a playoff loss to Seattle -- couldn't find an open receiver.
Manning capped his week of tropical relaxation with 67 yards passing in just two series as the AFC's starting quarterback. NFC starter Drew Brees also played just two series before dislocating his left elbow -- a scary moment for Sean Payton, his coach with both the Saints and the NFC squad, but one that's unlikely to affect next season.