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Aaron Rodgers doesn’t let you feel comfortable, so even with a 24-0 halftime lead the Atlanta Falcons weren’t. The first 30 minutes of Sunday’s NFC Championship Game couldn’t possibly have gone better for them, but nobody was throwing any parties yet.
Of course, to watch the Falcons play offense right now is to wonder why Shanahan would ever want to go anywhere. He has Ryan, the presumptive league MVP. He has Jones, a true game-changing superstar worthy of the five draft picks the Falcons surrendered nearly six years ago so they could draft him. Jones had nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns Sunday, and it was basically a typical NFC Championship Game performance for him. He caught 11 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns in the game four years ago, when the Falcons lost to the 49ers.
The All-Pro Jones, a first-round pick of the Falcons in 2011, out of Alabama, often hears challenges from various cornerbacks around the league.
Washington’s Josh Norman, who faced Jones twice a year while with Carolina, said “Julio completes me” in reference to Jones being the ultimate challenge. Arizona’s Patrick Peterson, who played at LSU, boasted about how he won his share of battles against Jones during their SEC days. Jones responded to Peterson’s claim with 189 receiving yards and a touchdown in a 29-18 Falcons win over the Cardinals during the 2014 season.
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The previous controversy stemmed from a play with one minute, 39 seconds remaining in regulation of the Seahawks’ 26-24 victory in Seattle on Oct. 16. Had a flag been thrown, the Falcons would have sustained the drive for an opportunity at a game-winning field goal.
After the game, Jones insisted Sherman pulled his right side, while Sherman maintained his innocence and said, “I mean, I thought there was interference on offense on nfl jerseys cheap a few plays, and they didn’t get it. So it was just one of those games. They let us play.”
Those discussion won’t take place before kickoff, Jones emphasized. Jones, who leads the NFL with 1,253 receiving yards, will miss his second consecutive game with the toe sprain. Quinn initially called it turf toe but retracted his original statement to clarify the injury wasn’t as serious.
“Like I said, it’s football,” Jones said. “It’s a physical sport, contact. You’re going to have some things here and there, not only from going out there and guys trying to hit you — bumps and bruises from them — but just being in physical shape, pulling things.”
The Falcons are a much better version of themselves now, with Ryan throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions during a four-game winning streak to finish the season. He has been spectacular all season and has thrown touchdown passes to 13 different targets, an NFL first. It could come down to which team comes up with the key turnover. The Falcons created 22 turnovers during the regular season and the Seahawks had 19 takeaways. Ryan’s carefulness with the ball could take the Falcons a long way. Maybe even all the way to Houston for the Super Bowl.
Jones has been limited in practices, for the most part, since first injuring his toe Dec. 4 in a loss to Kansas City. The injury caused him to miss two regular-season games. However, the aggravation didn’t limit Jones’ impact in the against the Packers. He caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns while playing 44 of 73 offensive snaps.
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The injury is to the same foot that Jones injured before the 2011 season, a source said. The day after his workout at the 2011 NFL combine, Jones was diagnosed with a broken foot and eventually underwent surgery. Despite the injury, Jones was selected by Atlanta with the sixth overall pick and appeared in 13 games that season.
Leading into the divisional-round game, Jones was listed as a full participant in practice for the first time since suffering the injury. He was limited in practices at the end of the regular season.
“For us, we’re going to stick with the same plan: We’ll limit him throughout the week, and then as the week progresses, we’ll give him a little more at the end,” Quinn said. “That will be the plan moving forward for us. He’s excited to play, but we’ll make sure he gets the looks that are really specific to him. For him and his foot, he’ll be ready to rock.”
Jones, who leads the NFL with 1,253 receiving yards, didn’t practice all week leading into the game. Coach Dan Quinn said it would be a game-time decision based on Jones running full-speed routes during warmups. However, Jones only jogged during his brief session with Quinn watching. The two consulted for five minutes before the team ruled out Jones.
Running the ball with Freeman and Tevin Coleman would be wise, of course, to help set up explosive play-action plays. And the Giants and Eli Manning, who ran a lot of no-huddle, had success moving the ball down the middle of the field against the Saints in Week 2, although New Orleans certainly tightened up in the red zone by not allowing any touchdowns.
For quite some time now, quarterbacks have been viewed as the most important players on the field — and that has resulted in field generals typically dominating the upper crust of the “Top 100.” While many will continue to tout quarterbacks as the MVPs of the league, I believe this year’s list — coupled with the results of the 2017 NFL Draft — might signal a changing mentality within the league that could alter team building going forward. Instead of ranking QB1s ahead of other skill players simply due to the perceived importance of the position, players are increasingly valuing playmakers at a higher level, particularly pass catchers.