2024 Pro Bowl Games: What We Learned from Sunday's flag football games, skill competitions
1) Bears’ Johnson saves NFC day. The two best performances on Pro Bowl Games Sunday might well have come from Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud and Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen. However, it was Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson that came up with the game-sealing play, just barely deflecting a fourth-and-game Stroud pass to Allen to secure the NFC’s 64-59 victory at Camping World Stadium. If the Bears needed a reminder of Johnson’s breakout play this past season, he provided it with an outstretched left arm to deflect away Stroud’s best intentions. Johnson, who also had five tackles in flag action, was not named Pro Bowl Games Defensive MVP, as that went to Saints linebacker Demario Davis. However, Johnson’s play was emblematic of the flag action in which there were some huge defensive plays -- though most came from the AFC. The AFC won the flag football game, 50-34, but came up short overall in the Pro Bowl Games thanks to the NFC winning the events, 30-9, on Thursday and Sunday. Nonetheless, Patrick Surtain, who had a pick-six, Denzel Ward, Sauce Gardner and Kyle Hamilton all had interceptions for the AFC as both squads buckled down defensively after Tyreek Hill weaved through NBA All-Star Game-caliber defense for a 45-yard touchdown to open the game’s scoring.
2) Stroud shines despite coming up short. C.J. Stroud came up short against Baker Mayfield in Thursday’s precision passing and did so once again Sunday as they were their respective squads last two QBs. Stroud’s performance was of the excellent variety, nonetheless. He led the AFC to scores on each of his first three drives in the second quarter, but unfortunately was stymied on his last two marches in the fourth stanza. He started the game completing his first seven passes and finished with a game-high 173 yards on 18-of-22 passing with two touchdowns, a two-point conversion pass and no interceptions. Just how dazzling Stroud is was on stage when he scrambled away from a Devon Witherspoon blitz and let fly on a beautiful 24-yard TD pass off his back foot to Ja’Marr Chase. On Saturday, Stroud said his rookie success wasn’t unexpected, and he showed Thursday and Sunday just how comfortable he is playing amongst the NFL’s best, because first-year player or not, he’s one of them.
3) CeeDee’s skills shine through. Following a dynamic dodgeball showing on Thursday, Cowboys star wide receiver CeeDee Lamb put on another sensational show Sunday. In flag action, the NFC sputtered at times, but Lamb was a consistent terror for AFC defenders and racked up three touchdowns on five catches for 44 yards. Lamb caught touchdowns from all three NFC quarterbacks -- NFC East rival Jalen Hurts of the Eagles on a 26-yarder, the Seahawks’ Geno Smith from 1 yard out and NFC Offensive MVP Baker Mayfield of the Buccaneers on a 2-yard reception. Mayfield won the Offensive MVP (9 of 13, 102 yards, two touchdowns, one interception), but Lamb was the constant. Lamb has been a Pro Bowler three times now, but 2023 was his best season, one in which he proved himself to be among the very elite at his position.
4) Allen does it all in defeat. Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen had as many touchdowns as the NFC all-stars combined. He caught nine balls for 90 yards and three TDs, and also threw a touchdown to Jaguars tight end Evan Engram. With questions swirling around Allen, who’s one of four Chargers with a plus-$30 million cap hit in 2024, he’s made it clear he wants to stay in Los Angeles. His performance Sunday, whether it was flag football or not, punctuated one of the finest seasons of his 11-year career. The 31-year-old stood out among his peers and showed ample reason as to why the Chargers should do their best to keep him on the roster.
5) Puka fittingly caps stellar rookie season. Puka Nacua’s grab while waterskiing was voted the Pro Bowl Games’ best catch winner. It was a pre-taped catch that won a fan vote over the Cleveland Browns’ David Njoku’s backflipping attempt, but it was also a perfect exclamation point for a historically sensational rookie campaign for Nacua, who had three catches for 27 yards in Sunday’s flag play. A fifth-rounder who filled in for an injured Cooper Kupp and then went ahead and became a Pro Bowler, Nacua had rookie records of 1,486 receiving yards and 105 receptions. Nacua made a splash in his debut season, and Sunday was a fitting and symbolic celebration of that.