Marc Mariani set Pro Bowl records for kickoff returns and kickoff return yards Sunday as the turnover-prone AFC was beaten 55-41 by the NFC in the NFL’s annual all-star contest.
Mariani, the Tennessee Titans’ rookie return specialist, took back nine kickoffs for 326 yards (an average of 36.2 yards per return). His longest, 52 yards, came in the first quarter.
The nine returns broke the record of eight set by Tennessee’s Derrick Mason in 2004. The 326 yards broke the mark of 228 set by Chicago’s Jerry Azumah, also in 2004.
With such extended involvement, Mariani, a seventh-round draft pick out of Montana, already ranks third in Pro Bowl career kickoff return yards. He trails only Carolina’s Michael Bates (488 from 1997-2001) and Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs, the AFC’s return man each of the previous three years (373).
He also returned one punt for one yard and gained 11 yards rushing on two attempts.
Mariani was one of four Tennessee players who participated in the contest at Honolulu on the Sunday, which for the second straight year was played on the Sunday between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl.
Mariani and defensive end Jason Babin were voted onto the original rosters. Running back Chris Johnson and safety Michael Griffin were added because of injuries to others.
Griffin took advantage of his inclusion and finished as the game’s leading tackler with eight stops. Johnson rushed six times for 33 yards and caught two passes for 11 yards. Babin was credited with one assisted tackle.
Mariani returned five kicks in the first half, when the AFC committed five of its six turnovers and fell behind 35-0. All three AFC quarterbacks, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Matt Cassel, all threw at least one interception and wide receiver Wes Welker lost a fumble. Cassel threw another interception in the second half.
Thirty-five of the NFC’s 55 points came as a result of turnovers.