A pair of Ravens playing in their first Pro Bowl stood out among the NFL’s brightest stars.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson threw two touchdown passes and tight end Mark Andrews caught a Pro Bowl-record nine passes to help the AFC beat the NFC, 38-33, in the NFL’s annual all-star game Sunday in Orlando, Florida.
Jackson, the presumptive NFL Most Valuable Player, was named Offensive MVP after competing 16 of 23 passes for 185 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Andrews caught nine passes, a Pro Bowl record for a tight end, for 73 yards and a score.
And they weren’t the only Ravens to make plays.
Ravens safety Earl Thomas III had an interception, Justin Tucker kicked a 50-yard field goal, Mark Ingram had five carries for 31 yards, Marlon Humphrey recorded three tackles and a pass breakup and Matthew Judon added one tackle for the AFC.
The game also served as a tribute for former NBA star Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash early Sunday near Calabasas, California.
Jackson said during an in-game interview with ESPN sideline reporter Lisa Salters that he looked up to Bryant, and even received a signed jersey from the former Lakers superstar when he was picked No. 32 overall by the Ravens in the 2018 NFL draft.
“That’s a legend, man. He did so much for the game of basketball," Jackson said. "A lot of people looked up to Kobe Bryant, including myself. He’s a great player, and from what I heard, he’s a great person as well. My prayers are with his family.”
“That’s a legend. He did so much for the game of basketball. A lot of people looked to Kobe Bryant, including myself.”
Green Bay Packers linebacker Za’Darius Smith, a former Raven, hastily organized an homage to Bryant minutes before the game.
Smith and his NFC teammates learned about Bryant’s death while they were in the locker room getting ready. Smith suggested the best way to pay tribute to the late NBA great was to mimic his fadeaway jumper after big plays.
So they did — repeatedly.
It was one of several ways NFL players remembered Bryant during the celebratory event.
“I don't even want to talk about it anymore,” Smith said in the locker room hours later. “I don't want to get emotional.”
Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay didn’t duck his feelings. Slay grew up idolizing Bryant so much that he had a custom Lakers hoodie made to warm up in before NFL games. Slay also got to meet Bryant a few years back.
“It's heart-wrecking,” Slay said with tears in his eyes. “There's not any words you can say. I'm in shock. I just imagine him growing old, being part-owner of the Lakers and having a future son I could cheer for next. It's just shocking. Me saying the words `Kobe's gone,' that's just crazy.”
Players checked cellphones on the sidelines for updates, all of them looking for information and answers.
“It shocked the whole locker room,” Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “Nobody thought it was true, but it was. It’s a sad day for sports.”
Smith, Slay and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Shaq Barrett got together following a second-quarter sack and delivered their first “Kobe J.” Even more NFC teammates performed the routine following a fumble in the third.
Green Bay receiver Davonte Adams pointed to the sky and flashed the No. 24 on his fingers as an ode to Bryant's jersey after a touchdown catch in the third.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson led a prayer for Bryant and his family before the game.
The NFL also held a moment of silence for Bryant at the two-minute warning in the first half, showing the retired NBA star’s picture on the scoreboards while announcing his death at age 41.
Several players removed their helmets during the break. Others took a knee and prayed. Fans broke the silence by chanting “Ko-be! Ko-be!”
“I felt hurt,” Chicago Bears safety Eddie Jackson said. “It’s sad. I don’t know how it feels to lose a husband and a child, so I don’t understand what the family’s going through. It’s got to be tough.”
Aside from the Bryant tributes, the NFL's annual all-star game went as expected. There were big plays everywhere and few tackles anywhere. The teams combined for 834 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The play of the day was Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt’s 82-yard fumble return in the fourth. Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell beat Dallas Cowboys guard Travis Frederick and sacked Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins on a fourth-and-goal play from the 9. Campbell stripped the ball, which Watt scooped up and went untouched the other way to put the AFC ahead 38-27.
The NFC had a chance to rally late and tried to take advantage of a new rule that allows the scoring team to retain possession by facing a fourth-and-15 play from its own 25-yard line. Cousins threw a deep ball that Thomas intercepted.
Campbell was named the AFC’s defensive player of the game. The winners earned $70,000 each. The losers got $35,000 apiece.
Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson threw for 148 yards, with a touchdown and a pick. Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill connected with Jacksonville Jaguars DJ Chark for a 60-yard score in which officials opted not to rule him down after two defenders touched him.
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Wilson gave his NFC starting spot to New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who is contemplating retirement. Brees said this week he will take some time before deciding on his future.
Cousins, Brees and Wilson threw TD passes for the NFC, which also allowed Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and Adams to attempt throws. Elliott’s was picked off. Adams added two TD receptions.
The NFC's top highlight was Cox rumbling 61 yards for a score. Minnesota's Harrison Smith intercepted a pass from Watson at the 3-yard line and returned it to the 39 before lateraling to Cox, who took it the rest of the while.
No one tried to tackle the 310-pound Cox. Denver Broncos receiver Courtland Sutton slapped at the ball for the final 20 yards.
“I’m glad nobody did try to stop me,” Cox said. “It was fun. I was looking for somebody to pitch the ball to, though. Guarantee I was. Get this thing out of my hands.”