ORLANDO, Fla. — Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield, still reeling from losing in the NFC divisional round two weeks ago, initially had mixed feelings about appearing in the Pro Bowl Games.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t know how to feel about it until I got on the bus and saw everybody on there,” Mayfield said. “Just seeing the faces, all the national names and all that, it really is an honor.”
And over the course of four days, Mayfield seemed to embrace the event quite well, with a strong showing in Thursday’s precision passing competition and, on Sunday, winning the offensive MVP award following the NFC’s victory over the AFC.
Mayfield completed 9 of 13 passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns in the flag-football affair before 55,709 at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium. The NFC won with a cumulative 64-59 score, stopping the AFC’s fourth-down play at the 3-yard line with 4 seconds remaining.
It was all something of a culmination of Mayfield’s comeback season, with the former No. 1 overall pick resurrecting his career with the Buccaneers after changing teams three times in the past two seasons. Mayfield led Tampa Bay to an unlikely NFC South title and set career highs in passing yards (4,044) and touchdown passes (28).
“A lot of guys made plays today,” Mayfield said. “It was honestly so much fun. I got to watch the whole first half, stay a little loose a little bit, stay involved and take advantage of the opportunities. I’m just happy to be here.”
The Pro Bowl Games, now in the second year of the flag-football format, was again seen as a success. Just like last year, what began as a not-so-serious competition grew increasingly competitive over the course of the day, from the flag football to the skills competitions. Points are accumulated throughout all events and calculated toward a total score.
“It’s a flag game but, man, it’s a bunch of competitors out there competing,” said New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis, the defensive MVP.
The flag format has been mocked in some corners, but the event has arguably been more competitive because playing flag football drastically reduces the chances of injury compared with the tackle-football version that was played until 2022.
Anyone who questioned whether winning mattered should have heard Davis recount the defensive adjustments by his team to slow the AFC’s high-powered passing attack.
“We had to make a crucial switch,” he said.
Asked whether he was being serious, Davis made himself unmistakably clear. Going up against the AFC’s head coach, Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, and defensive coordinator, Ray Lewis, another all-time great, required actual strategy, Davis said.
“We’re going against Peyton, man,” he said. “We’re going against Ray Lewis. And they are at the top of the universe when it comes to being competitive.”
The AFC had been moving the ball successfully behind the efforts of Houston Texans rookie C.J. Stroud, who led all passers with 173 yards and two touchdowns on 18-of-22 passing. Los Angeles Chargers receiver Keenan Allen caught three touchdowns for the AFC and threw a fourth as a passer.
Chicago Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson, however, defended Stroud’s fourth-down attempt to Allen to seal the victory.
With $88,000 going to each member of the winning team (the losers settle for $44,000 apiece), the NFC players erupted in celebration as the final pass fell incomplete. An event that the NFL once considered eliminating because of a lack of effort seems here to stay as players continue to embrace its new iteration.
“At first, it was all laughter and games,” Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku said. “But when it got real, it got really real. And it stayed real until the end.”