HONOLULU — Panthers coach Ron Rivera came halfway around the globe and wasn’t about to play for a tie.
Deciding against an extra point to force overtime, Rivera called his own player’s number on the two-point try – and Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert delivered by slamming into the end zone to give Team Rice a 22-21 victory over Team Sanders on Sunday at Aloha Stadium.
DeMarco Murray’s 20-yard touchdown catch cut Team Sanders’ lead to a point with 41 seconds left. With his players yelling “Riverboat Ron” on the sideline, Rivera left the offense on the field, as he and alumni captain Jerry Rice had discussed Saturday.
“I said, ‘Jerry, we didn’t come here to tie. If it comes down to it, we’re going for two.’ And he said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” Rivera said on the field afterward. “Then I checked with him one last time. He said, ‘Coach, just go for it.’ And we did.”
Team Sanders’ Justin Tucker, the Baltimore kicker who made a 64-yard field goal during the regular season, was short on a 67-yard attempt as time expired.
The Panthers were stuffed on two goal-line situations in a playoff loss to San Francisco two weeks ago, but Tolbert wasn’t going to be denied on the play Rivera called a “fullback belly.”
“That’s a basic play that I think every team in the league has,” Tolbert said. “I’m not surprised by any means that Ron wasn’t going to go for the tie. They call him Riverboat Ron in Carolina for a reason.”
Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, who was playing tackle for Team Sanders on the final drive, wasn’t surprised, either. Hardy said he knew the fullback dive was coming but couldn’t stop it because Colts coach Chuck Pagano replaced him with Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh on the two-point conversion.
“I knew what he was running, exactly where he was going and they took me out,” Hardy said. “I was right there. I was like, ‘I know what’s about to go down.’ And they took me out.”
The NFL brought in Hall of Famers Rice and Deion Sanders to draft the teams, and the league tweaked a couple of rules to try to spice up a game that has come under fire in recent years for its quality of play and effort.
From the opening series, when New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees – the starter for Team Rice – was hit from the blind side on consecutive snaps, players seemed to be giving effort.
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said there was no comparing Sunday’s game with the 2012 Pro Bowl, a game that prompted boos from the Aloha Stadium crowd and drew the ire of commissioner Roger Goodell.
“I was here two years ago, and in comparison to that, it was leaps and bounds (better),” said Graham, who caught five passes for 51 yards and a touchdown. “I don’t think a Pro Bowl or all-star game can be any better than it was tonight.”
But the execution wasn’t always there. With rain falling for most of the game, the teams combined for eight turnovers, including six interceptions. Philadelphia’s Nick Foles, a second-year player making his first Pro Bowl appearance, was the only quarterback without a pick.
Rivera kept up his gambling ways after a Foles touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, calling a successful fake punt on a run by Tolbert to keep a drive alive. Team Rice advanced past midfield before Miami cornerback Brent Grimes intercepted Alex Smith.
Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly had a game-high 12 solo tackles for Team Sanders.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, booed during the game two years ago when he threw three interceptions, was 8-of-17 passing for 95 yards with no touchdowns and one interception after taking over for Team Sanders starter Andrew Luck.
Newton scored on a 1-yard sneak in the second quarter.
After his touchdown run, Newton saluted Sanders with Prime Time’s touchdown dance and continued his own tradition by finding a Panthers fan in the front row – a young boy wearing a Newton jersey – and handing him the ball.
Newton didn’t get a lot of help.
He was charged with an interception in the first half when Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden took the ball away from Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson. It appeared Jackson had possession of the ball and lost it, which should have been a fumble.
Newton also was victimized by a couple of dropped passes by receivers – on a long pass at the end of the first half that hit A.J. Green in the hands and on a slant pass in the end zone that Dez Bryant couldn’t pull in.
There were a couple of interesting moments for the Panthers’ Honolulu contingent. On Tolbert’s 7-yard run in the first half, he barreled into Kuechly, knocking him backward.
“Make sure you quote me: ‘Luke, I’m sorry,’ ” Tolbert said of his play against Kuechly.
Hardy, who has been a gunner on the Panthers’ punt coverage team, dropped Kansas City returner Dexter McCluster – Hardy’s teammate at Mississippi – on a fourth-quarter punt.
But in the end it was Rivera, Tolbert and the rest of Team Rice celebrating.
“I expected those guys to go for it, and they did,” Newton said. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword when you see your guys score. When you’re on the opposing team, it’s not fun, especially for the celebration.”
Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson