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Starry debut for T.J.

Updated: 7:50 p.m.



HONOLULU - It took T.J. Houshmandzadeh 90 NFL games, 415 catches and seven years to make the Pro Bowl. But it took him just 18 minutes to make a run for Pro Bowl MVP.

He caught a touchdown each from Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in becoming the first Bengal to ever have a multi touchdown game in the Pro Bowl as the AFC shot to a 24-7 lead with 12:08 left in the first half.

The AFC took a 27-20 halftime lead with Houshmandzadeh making four catches for 44 yards. When starting receivers Reggie Wayne of the Colts and Braylon Edwards of the Browns took a seat late in the half, the Bengals' Chad Johnson added a sliding 12-yard catch.

Houshmandzadeh lost out on his chance to grab MVP honors when the NFC stormed back from the early 24-7 deficit to win 42-30. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was named MVP after rushing for 129 yards and two touchdowns.

Houshmandzadeh had kiddingly griped about playing in the slot earlier in the week, but it got him the 16-yard touchdown pass from Manning with 2:42 left in the first quarter and gave the AFC a 14-7 lead. He appeared to take an inside release on Vikings safety Darren Sharper and just took it to the outside by simply scalding him in one-on-one coverage. Although it no doubt helped that Pro Bowl rules prohibit press coverage.

Houshmandzadeh picked up at Aloha Stadium where he left off his '07 season, when he scored in 10 of 16 games on his way to 12 touchdowns.

Houshmandzadeh got rewarded when he didn't have to cover the ensuing kickoffs. And, Manning tried to go to him on a checkdown pass over the middle on the next drive, but he got rushed and threw it low and in front of him.

Then Houshmandzadeh kept going early in the second quarter. On the first play of the first series on which he lined up opposite Johnson, he made a diving-body-parallel-to-the-ground 16-yard catch on the sidelines from Roethlisberger.

Then the best of Houshmandzadeh:

Second down. In the red zone. Roethlisberger sent him on a fade to the corner from the 1-yard line and Seattle cornerback Marcus Trufant got outmuscled. From behind, Houshmandzadeh reached over and ripped it away from Trufant to make it 24-7 three minutes into the second quarter.

He was rewarded by a helmet hug from Johnson.

Looking for the hat trick in the middle of the third quarter, Houshmandzadeh lined up in the slot on two straight snaps from the NFC's 10 and the AFC trailing, 28-27. But he couldn't get his hands on a crossing pass from Roethlisberger at about the 5 and the AFC settled for a Rob Bironas field goal that gave the AFC a 30-28 lead with 6:58 left in the half.

So that must have been what put him back on the kick cover team and his side got bludgeoned when the Bears' Devin Hester got loose on a return that put the ball on the AFC side of the 50.

But Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie rescued the AFC with his second interception of the game as the AFC kept its 30-28 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Yet another receiver quickly entered the mix, this one on the NFC side when Dallas wide receiver Terrell Owens matched Houshmandzadeh with his second touchdown catch of the day to give his club a 35-30 lead with 12:29 left in the game.

On the next drive, Houshmandzadeh and Johnson lined up on the same side on a couple of snaps and on one of the plays Browns quarterback Derek Anderson hit Johnson sliding in front of Trufant for an 18-yard gain.

Anderson again had them on the same side a few plays later but he went to the other side and overthrew San Diego's Kassim Osgood and the AFC couldn't get any points on the drive with 8:04 left.

LOWERING BOOMER: No, Houshmandzadeh had no first-time jitters and was the last player to arrive in the AFC locker room as he gave a breezy wave to fans calling his name here at Aloha Stadium.

And, yes, Chad Johnson emerged later carrying his Bengals helmet for the Pro Bowl warmups.

Contrary to rumors.

Watching in the end zone happened to be three-time Bengals Pro Bowler Boomer Esiason and finding it hard to believe Sunday marked the first time the Bengals placed two wide receivers in the same Pro Bowl.

"It's amazing to me when you think about guys like Cris Collinsworth, Eddie Brown, Isaac Curtis," said Esiason, calling the game for CBS Radio. "But they never really overlapped and one guy would have a great year and maybe not a great one the next. It's not surprising because they throw the ball so much. But both those guys deserve to be here."

But Esiason thinks the Bengal who isn't here says more about how important next season is. Quarterback Carson Palmer didn't get a chance to defend his Player of the Game performance or tie Esiason with his third selection (quarterback Ken Anderson went to four Pro Bowls), but Esiason knows which position takes the brunt of a down season.

"The fact that Tom Brady didn't come and Carson wasn't the first replacement shows you where the franchise is," Esiason said. "I know exactly what's going on. I've been there. Carson has a great attitude. He really cares about being great and the team being great and sometimes you get frustrated and do things you normally wouldn't do. Force the issue, force the ball, getting careless. I can understand that when it always seems like you're playing from behind. My biggest wish is that somehow, some way he gets back to being that great quarterback that we know he is."

Esiason never went to the Pro Bowl without at least three of his teammates and he went with contingents of nine and six, respectively, in the seasons of 1988 and 1989. He still thinks the Pro Bowl means something to this generation.

"When T.J. Houshmandzadeh was named to the Pro Bowl and Chad Johnson didn't, how do you think that went over in the locker room?" Esiason asked. "These guys seem to still really want to play in it. It was a lot of fun. We'd have a couple of linemen and couple of defensive players. Anthony Munoz (11 straight) was always here. I hope they keep it here. It's a beautiful place and the state of Hawaii always embraces you."

As always, Esiason called it.

"He had a nice year," said Esiason, two hours before Houshmandzadeh's touchdown. "He can hang here with these guys. That's how good he is and he'll get better and better."

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