Julio Jones rebounds from injury to deliver impressive, terrifying performance

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

ATLANTA — He was lurking, running decoy routes and the occasional quick slant. He took plays off, jogging to the sideline and watching with the rest of the Georgia Dome as Mohamed Sanu gashed the Green Bay Packers defense. You started to wonder whether the reports of injuries to his toe and foot were even more severe than reported.

And then Julio Jones reminded you that he’s Julio Jones, and the only thing that remained in doubt was how many points he’d hang on the poor Packers … and how badly he could carve up the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Atlanta thrashed Green Bay 44-21 to win the NFC championship and earn the franchise’s second Super Bowl berth, and Jones played a central role. The all-universe Falcons receiver, the man for whom Atlanta traded a king’s ransom of draft picks and still came out ahead, the Human Boost Button, Jones ended the first half and kicked off the second with two plays that stomped out whatever embers remained of Green Bay’s flickering hopes.

Seven seconds remaining in the half. Falcons up 17-0, on the Packers’ 5-yard line, maybe one snap remaining. Jones curled into the end zone, fronted overmatched cornerback LaDarius Gunter, and dove toward the sideline as Matt Ryan rifled a pass his way. Jones caught the ball about 3 feet off the ground, planted his foot and then somehow managed to drag the curl of his right instep just inside the green of the end zone. A review confirmed what Jones already knew: 24-0, Falcons.

Sixty-one seconds of game clock later, with Atlanta having forced Green Bay into a three-and-out that took just 11 seconds off the clock, Jones cut straight across the field from left to right, caught a Ryan pass like he was picking up keys off a table, and then stiff-armed, eluded and outran four Packers. And he did it in less time than it took you to read that sentence.

“Their plan was to tug and hold,” Jones said. “Any cornerback is going to do that, to mess up the timing that the quarterback and the receiver have. I spinned out, and Matt gave me a floater and let me run through the ball. After that, those guys couldn’t tackle me once I got going.”

“I knew it was going to Julio, so I just sat back and watched,” Sanu said. “It was pretty. It was beautiful! That guy’s an alien. It’s definitely a sight to see.”

Just like that, the Falcons were up 31-0, sending every Atlanta fan with disposable income to check flight schedules to Houston.

“He’s a beast. I mean, he’s an absolute stud,” Ryan said. “He was impressive today. And I know he wasn’t feeling his best, but he’s a warrior, and he went out and competed for us.”

Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons signals a first down in the third quarter against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Julio Jones points the way toward Houston for the Atlanta Falcons. (Getty Images)

“Competed” is polite Matt Ryanspeak for throttled, destroyed, vanquished, exterminated. Jones finished with 180 yards and two touchdowns, nine receptions on 12 targets. And he did it despite injuries to his foot and toe that limited him in practice.

“’He couldn’t run all week,” running back Devonta Freeman said. “Saw his toe. It was so swollen.”

Jones wouldn’t hear talk of taking it easy, taking plays off. “It’s not about me. I’m out here with 53 other guys,” he said. “If I can get out there and move around, I’m going to do it. It’s easy to sit down and quit on yourself, but when you’re doing it for other people, other people’s families, you’ve got to do it.”

They did it. From the opening drive, Jones and Sanu, along with fellow receiver Taylor Gabriel and a supporting cast of seemingly hundreds, rolled out the full Falcons assault, running the Packers up and down the field, breaking them down bit by bit.

“We definitely had them shook early on,” he said. “Sanu made a few plays, so they tried to take Sanu away from us. Then I make a few plays, then [Taylor] Gabriel makes a few plays, then we’d run the ball. It was gassing them a little bit. Those guys started looking at each other, and right then we knew we had them.”

Jones ducked off the celebratory podium shortly after a brief Terry Bradshaw postgame interview, and remained hidden in the recesses of the Falcons locker room for nearly an hour. When he emerged, he was all smiles – he’s going to the Super Bowl, who wouldn’t be? – and he was as evasive with questions about his toe as he’d been with Packers defenders out on the field.

When asked if he’d been able to run at full speed, he smiled. “I didn’t run full speed at practice,” he said. “I ain’t going to tell you no story.”

But game day has a way of healing injuries that nag during practice. During pregame, Jones pronounced himself fit and ready for a full workload. “Once I knew I could run, I was good to go,” he said. “Of course I’m going to feel it, but it didn’t hinder me too much from doing what I needed to do.”

If Jones had any regrets, it was that he couldn’t continue one of his favorite traditions. After scoring, Jones often hands the ball to one of his offensive linemen for a glorious, turf-rattling spike. Not so this time. “They didn’t get down there fast enough,” he laughed.

Next up: 13 days of preparation and media hype, and then a date with the AFC champion New England Patriots. Plenty of time for Jones to heal up whatever nagging injuries remain … and a Julio Jones with an even broader repertoire than he showed Sunday is a nightmare of a matchup.

“Can’t nobody stop us but us,” Jones said, and he might well be right.

____
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.