More Than Just Dominant: Julio Jones Is Unlike Anything the NFL Has Seen Before

Tyler Dunne NFL Features WriterFebruary 3, 2017

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  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)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

ATLANTA — Start with the sheet of paper hanging from his locker. It arrived four days after Julio Jones' nine-catch, 180-yard, two-touchdown bludgeoning of the Packers. He was being asked by the NFL to take a random drug test. 

The NFL wouldn't target him, would it?

The Falcons receiver cracks a smile. Shrugs. "I don't think they'd do something like that," he says.

But you couldn't blame Roger Goodell for thinking Jones might've sipped a magic potion before the NFC Championship Game.

Nobody's quite sure what they're seeing here.

With one cut on an out route in the second quarter of that game, Jones had sent poor LaDarius Gunter sprinting in the other direction. (Speaking of, someone should really locate Gunter before the Georgia Dome is demolished.)

With two stiff-arms on a 73-yard touchdown in the third, he had harpooned Damarious Randall into tomorrow.

This does not compute.

Even for those who know the game intimately. Ask Hall of Famers to take a guess at who Jones resembles.

Cris Carter sees a mashup of Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson at first, but then pauses, turns his head and widens his eyes in a Eureka! gaze.

"Sterling Sharpe!" Carter says. "The explosion. Built similar. Nifty feet. Very physical. A deep threat."

Retired tight end Shannon Sharpe, Sterling's brother, sticks with Megatron because Jones is "big like Calvin, fast like Calvin," though he has to admit Jones can run many more routes.

James Lofton? He doesn't buy the Johnson comparison because Johnson was all "straight line," whereas Jones has "wiggle." No, he sees a dash of Ahmad Rashad. The ball skills. The body control. The running back past. Yet even so, Lofton admits the speed of the game in the '70s was nothing like 2017.

So, OK, let's hear from someone who's seen Jones as much as anyone but has a different perspective. An Atlanta perspective. Hip-hop artist Jermaine Dupri compares Jones to Lynn Swann because Swann, too, would "damn near hurt himself to catch a football!"

Veteran Dashon Goldson sees Terrell Owens—sees violence. The Falcons safety is one of the few players still in the NFL who faced T.O. in T.O.'s prime. But there are flaws with that comparison. Those closest to Jones insist he is the polar opposite of anyone who'd smear his quarterbacks, do shirtless situps for cameras in a driveway and chuck popcorn into his mouth on the field.

There is no convenient mirror image, no singular skill that defines him.

Rather, the greatness of Julio Jones is captured best in another man's withdrawal.

OK, so Josh Norman inked a five-year, $75 million contract. But in leaving the Panthers for the Redskins last offseason, he also ended his twice-a-year duels with Jones—and, man, did those duels supply a high that money can't buy.

"The sweet sensation of death without dying," Norman says. "You're trapped in time. A split second feels like a lifetime in the moment of a play. So for me, it was like I was trapped in that butterfly effect. People say that they go through this when they know they're about to have an accident. They think about everything within that moment. That is where we were at. We were in that moment for what seemed like the entire game.

"It's like watching 300. The sweetest thing to them in the ultimate battle is a sweet death. The sweetest thing to me in an ultimate battle is a Julio Jones. He pushes our level to a point where it's like being in Super Saiyan range. You elevate from Super Saiyan 3 to Super Saiyan 4. You know what I'm saying? Like a Goku or something."

In other words, nothing like jousting with this other All-Pro twice a year.

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 16:  Josh Norman #24 of the Carolina Panthers dives after Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons in the 3rd quarter during their game at Bank of America Stadium on November 16, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant H
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

"S--t, when I'm going against an Odell Beckham, hell, I'm just trying to stay alive and not have this guy do some crazy s--t. I'm looking over my shoulder like, 'What the f--k are you doing?'"

He misses you, Julio.

"You have no idea," Norman says. "For me, it was the ultimate."

Why? Easy.

This 6'3," 220-pounder baits cornerbacks into a personal torture chamber. He first shakes and bakes at the line of scrimmage, then scrambles a corner's mind those first five steps by running full speed—Is he going deep? Stopping for a curl? Turning left? Turning right?—and then he either out-muscles you in traffic, toe-taps along the sideline with a ballerina's grace or, of course, turns a cornerback into a banana that's been sitting on the kitchen counter for a month.

He will bruise you. He will outrun you.

He is, absolutely, the "ultimate."

So the NFL can drug test him all it wants.

Jones is a slap in the face to science, unlike anything our generation has seen. But follow his footsteps to this precise moment, to Super Bowl Sunday, and he starts to make sense.

He was gifted. Holy, was he gifted. But how Jones harnessed these gifts is why he is, hands down, the best wide receiver in football.

"How can you stop him?" Norman shouts with a laugh. "I don't know how!"

Bill Belichick has approximately 48 hours to find out.

Otherwise, the best coach in NFL history will be just another victim.

              

"Superman"

Drive three hours southwest of Atlanta, past the fields and farms and fields, to find the first witness.

Around a massive heap of construction at Troy University's football facility, through a side door, a dark hallway, another hallway at the direction of one player, up a flight of stairs and waiting inside an office in a plush leather chair is Todd Watson. He's the director of football operations here after previously coaching for 10 years at Foley (Alabama) High School, Jones' alma mater.

Todd Watson, Julio Jones' high school coach (photo by Tyler Dunne).

Watson motions to enter. A massive Samsung screen is on the wall. He hits play. The wreckage is already cued up—an hour-and-a-half's worth of Jones' high school highlights, and, hold on tight, the footage is terrifying.

"He enjoyed the fact that he could go out there," says Watson, who coached Jones for three years, "and physically dominate smaller defensive backs."

One play instantly hooks the attention.

Jones is playing UMS-Wright, a private school in Mobile. Right when the Red Hot Chili Peppers' song "Storm in a Teacup" kicks into the lyrics "I know we may never get outta here," Jones cradles a punt return and is met by four untouched defenders head-on. He plants right, then left, then right again and wastes all four before the next lyric. Jones breaks the tackle of a fifth player lunging at his ankles, high-steps ahead, and two new defenders approach him with perfect angles.

One dip of the shoulder makes both miss. The two collide. Jones gains an extra 15 yards.

Asked to explain "How in the...?" Watson cuts in.

"Watch this one right here."

No kidding. Jones is now playing Niceville (Florida). He catches a pass, splits two defenders, shoos away another with his left hand and totes four more on his back. It literally takes all 11 players to tackle him. Numbers on the screen count each misfire in "1...2...3...11" succession. Moments later, there's Jones sprinting away from Brandon Gibson, a 4-star receiver who'd play at Alabama himself.

The reel, which has collected more than 565,000 views on YouTube, ends, and Watson details his own first encounter with Jones. It was February 2005, and Jones was a freshman. The final school period of the day was gym for Jones, and Watson watched in disbelief as the kid leaped atop 36-inch box jumps as if, the coach says, "I was jumping on a penny." He then saw Jones train. And train. And when Jones popped his shirt off, he did a double take.

"I just thought, 'You can come in here and teach a biology class just looking at him,'" Watson says. "No fat. Ripped up. And this was in ninth grade."

Jones had just completed his freshman year as a wishbone running back under a different staff, and Watson planned on implementing the spread. After two weeks of workouts, the Foley coaches told the kids to play a pickup game. They told the kids it was for fun. They wanted to see who'd step up as captains, who'd be picked first, who'd be picked last. Sure enough, Jones put on a show at wide receiver.

Before he knew it, a 17-year-old Jones was ESPN's No. 1-rated receiver in the country, and his phone would not stop ringing with Division I offers. He was, Watson jokes, "trying to beat everybody off with a stick." The week before signing day, Watson's cellphone maxed out at 100 calls a day. God knows what the Jones phone bill was.

Here at Troy, the Jones stories multiply. Each one's more ridiculous than the last.

The brilliance of Julio Jones was not confined to a football field, no. Watson is convinced Jones could've been an Olympian. In track, he excelled in sprints and jumps, focusing strictly on jumps as a senior. Well, that is, until he heard a kid named Reggie Hunt from Daphne High School squawking in the bleachers during one meet. With packs of kids all waiting for their events, Hunt told everyone in earshot he'd dominate the 100-meter dash.

"Nobody was going to touch him," Watson recalls. "He was just jawing like kids do."

Jones listened and didn't say a word. Instead, he shuffled down the bleachers to inform his track coach, Russ Moore, that he'd be running the 100 today. Jones knew he had the high jump shortly and knew he hadn't run the 100 all year. So what? He didn't care. This was no debate.

"I want to shut him up," Jones told Moore. "I'm running the 100."

Jones toasted Hunt. And as he crossed the finish line, he glared back at the soon-to-be Southern Mississippi running back.

And yet this feat didn't touch what Watson witnessed as Foley's basketball color commentator. What he saw there did not seem human. Jones' Foley team faced DeMarcus Cousins' LeFlore High School team on the road for a district playoff game. With the score at 27-19, one Foley guard fired a deep three-pointer, and the ball ricocheted high...higher...higher into the sky.

Both play-by-play man Clark Stewart and Watson thought the ball would sail back to half court.

Then in flew Jones to dunk it back in.

"Like he's coming down from the rafters," Watson says. "He just grabs it and slams it home."

"Julio could fly. Literally," Stewart adds. "It was like he had wings and flew down from the rafters and put it back."

The dunk was so vicious, so preposterous, the LeFlore students stormed onto the court in bedlam. An audio file of the broadcast has survived, and the scene is clearly Juliochaos, with Watson, Stewart and a chorus of fans all in pure pandemonium. Officials were forced to stop the game for more than five minutes simply to get everyone under control.

Neither Watson nor Stewart remembers Jones' launching point.

They only saw him land.

"I don't know where the heck he came from," Stewart says. "He came from outer space. It was unbelievable. ... Julio was like Superman. You expected to see a big 'S' on his shirt."

Inside his Troy office, Watson plugs in one more DVD. This one's a tribute to the 2007 Foley team. Grainy Ken Stabler clips loop in the intro—"Snake" starred at Foley in the 1960s—before fading into more of No. 82 in blue. Jones saw every coverage imaginable. He was pressed, doubled, tripled, quadrupled and beat it all.

Take a look at the screen for more proof.

His masterpiece against Daphne is featured prominently. That night, the school's fire marshal was forced to turn fans away because a stadium that held 7,000 was flooded with about 12,000. In a 16-14 thriller televised on ESPN2, Jones scored both touchdowns, plucking the game-winner inches above a helpless defender's helmet. His best feat was on the punt team, where he downed a punt at the 1-yard line.

"This is the catch you need to see," Watson says as a camera zooms in on a different play. "This is unbelievable right here."

Now Foley is playing Sidney Lanier (Alabama) in the first round of the playoffs. Jones tightropes the sideline while simultaneously leaning back for an insane one-handed, left-handed, over-the-shoulder, Willie Mays-like gem.

How was this catch even possible? Watson doesn't respond. Can't respond. Who the hell knows? This DVD reaches its conclusion, and Watson sets the disc atop a stack behind him.

    

"A Warrior"

As ludicrous as these plays are, they only tell half the story. The other half is a mystery to outsiders. The other half isn't captured on video.

Watson clasps his fingers behind his head and leans back to explain.

This last story might've been the one that ultimately vaulted Jones into the Super Bowl.

The summer before his senior year at Foley, Jones attended a Florida State football camp where several former FSU players ran drills with high schoolers. Mixed in with everyone was one familiar face, Mississippi Valley State grad Jerry Rice. Three years after retiring, Rice wanted to share wisdom with the next generation. So there the two were for one seven-on-seven drill, with Jones lined up as the "Z" to the right side and Rice the "X" to the left.

The 44-year-old Rice ran a skinny post, dove to catch the ball, brought everyone on the field to a stop and...popped up and sped into a sprint to the end zone.

Jones was mesmerized.

"I'll never forget Julio saying, 'Man, look at that,'" Watson says. "He takes that kind of stuff in. He's very observant.

"He sees something like that, and it sticks with him."

Afterward, Jones made a point to pick Rice's brain.

Everyone at Tuscaloosa watched the same video clips Watson has in his office. They all read about the legend of Julio. Saw the sparkling 5-star ratings. What they didn't know was if reality would match the hype. Then he strapped on an Alabama uniform and treated it like armor. He caught 58 passes for 924 yards and four scores through myriad injuries as a freshman.

Jones needed three surgeries—for his wrist, his shoulder and a sports hernia—but nobody in the building, all fall, had much of a clue Jones was hurting. He never uttered a word about the injuries to position coach Curt Cignetti and hardly ever grimaced or limped.

"A lot of times," Cignetti says, "you weren't even aware of it."

No doubt, Jones was the son Nick Saban never had. He was born for Saban's hellacious practices. Cornerback Javier Arenas remembers once smacking running back Mark Ingram with so much force in the hole that the two ended up wrestling, fighting and getting kicked out of practice. Jones never threw fists, no, but he did treat these testosterone-filled practices as personal bowl games.

Whenever the nation describes Jones as a beast, a freak, Arenas says, people are missing the bigger picture.

"They say, 'That cat is a freak!'" Arenas says. "Yeah, he's a freak, but he amps it up even more with his intensity and his attention to detail."

When the two caught a game on TV—say LSU stud Patrick Peterson was on the screen—it was common for Jones to point at Peterson and shoot Arenas a quizzical expression. He'd never talk trash. Never predict anything. Never say a word, period. Rather, Jones would "tilt his lips" and point at the screen as if to say "You see this? Come on."

Says Arenas, "It's a come-on look."

BATON ROUGE, LA - NOVEMBER 06:  Julio Jones #8 of the Alabama Crimson Tide avoids a tackle by Patrick Peterson #7 of the Louisiana State University Tigers at Tiger Stadium on November 6, 2010 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  The Tigers defeated the Crimson Tid
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The bigger the moment, the better Jones played. He torched Peterson's Tigers as a freshman for 128 yards. Cignetti remembers four players on Jones' back ballooning to nine players one play. Into overtime, Jones burned Peterson on a slant-and-go and then contorted his body 180 degrees on a back-shoulder throw to haul in a 24-yarder that set up the winning score. What hernia?

Maybe the toughness comes from Dad's leaving the family when Jones was a child. Maybe he toughened up even more when his brother was shot in the arm in May 2014 and needed the limb amputated.

Genetically and psychologically, he's wired differently.

"I mean, he's a freak," Cignetti says. "He's a 'one in every 10 years' type of guy. The best of the best.

"He's a warrior. It's all business."

Even at Foley, Watson repeats, Jones was "very humble, very quiet...very observant."

He deflects limelight. Always has.

This is rare. The wide receiver position, by nature, feeds insubordination.

These last 15 months, Odell Beckham Jr. feuded with a kicking net, Sammy Watkins called his fans "losers" on Instagram and told them to go back to their "little jobs," Brandon Marshall ticked off teammates with a halftime rant, and Antonio Brown's Facebook Live stream of a postgame locker room sure wasn't the way the Steelers wanted to start AFC Championship week.

Shannon Sharpe sighs and says how disappointed he is that Brown appears to be more like Beckham and Dez Bryant than Jones or A.J. Green. Here was a receiver saying he wanted to give fans inside access, and it turns out he was paid by Facebook.

Now, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette, "Brown's antics are wearing thin on some of his teammates and certainly his coaches."

"If I were the Steelers," Sharpe says, "I'd seriously look at trading Antonio Brown."

Rare is the star receiver who never demands the ball, treats Wednesdays like Sundays and, uh, puts reporters to sleep for 20 minutes at his locker.

Hello, Julio Jones.

SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 16:  Wide receiver Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons warms up before facing the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on October 16, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Cignetti can't recall Jones ever clamoring for more targets, and Arenas relished their heated one-on-one sessions at 'Bama.

"He's different," Arenas says, "because with T.O., he works hard for a different reason. I feel like they work hard for the glamour. He works hard because that's what he does. He's so smart. He's so intelligent. If he worked hard for the glamour, you'd see that. He does it because he's the best—he knows he's the best—so why not take advantage of it?"

What strikes Lofton most about Jones' game is the fact he'll run a clear-out route at maximum velocity to create for a receiver underneath, and he'll lower the boom on a linebacker in the run game. What struck Goldson soon after signing with the Falcons on Aug. 28 was Jones' catching a pass in practice, hearing a whistle blown and, yes, sprinting 40 yards to the end zone.

"At the wide receiver position, you run across a lot of guys who are prima donnas," Goldson says. "They want to look good. They don't want to run certain routes. He's a guy who does it all. You've got the Chad Ochocincos that played. A good player. He could run fast. But he doesn't want to go across the middle. He doesn't want to block anybody.

"It shows up on the practice field. Julio goes hard."

Added vet Eric Weems, "The way he practices, at that speed and at that velocity, he treats it just like a game."

Because back at Foley, Jones realized he'd never dominate on pure athletic ability. He ripped through tennis ball drills after practice to speed up his hand-eye coordination. He perfected his release. He sharpened his route "stems." He learned how to "stack" a cornerback vertically. Now when NFL cornerbacks line up across from him, they're terrified. They're living the same nightmare those 16- and 17-year-olds did.

Cornerbacks watch film of Jones and half-expect to get a phone call, hear a creepy voice and see someone climb out of their television in seven days.

"So he already has an advantage," Arenas says. "They're already shook."

And those who aren't? Those who dare to match Jones' intensity? They've entered a realm that's hard to explain to mortals.

           

"Sweet Death"

Norman wasn't losing his mind. It only seemed that way.

Before Panthers-Falcons games, he'd pretend to be Julio Jones. The cornerback would blare Young Scooter's song, "Julio," in the locker room and bark the lyrics out loud.

I got them Dirty Birds, call me Julio!

Soon as the work touch, we make it Julio!

Me and my plug sipping Don Julio!

You out of bounds, we touching down like Julio

To beat Jones, Norman believed he needed to become Julio.

"I wanted to get into the psyche of the player I was about to face," Norman says. "So I was bumping to that music just as much as he probably would and get into that mode, into that mindset of, 'OK, this is the type of guy I'm about to face.' I was crazy indulged into the character of it, man. I was trying to be him but be better at himself."

Jones sincerely could not care less about the player lined up across from him. He made that clear again in the NFC Championship Game. But those four seasons his career intersected with Norman's in the NFC South, Norman was downright obsessed.

He studied every route, every mannerism, every nuance in the film room.

In Norman, the brilliance of Jones crystallizes. This is someone pretending to be a mythic hero like Batman, Maximus or Achilles before games. Norman slept with a football in his bed all through college at Coastal Carolina and, yes, still does occasionally. At the mic, he's as braggadocios as Jones is milquetoast. But like Jones, he's a master technician. These matchups lifted Norman to a "Cloud 12" he never imagined possible.

For a half-hour, Norman details why he loved this "sweet death."

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 28: Josh Norman #24 and Tre Boston #33 of the Carolina Panthers break up a pass intended for Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons in the second half at the Georgia Dome on December 28, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Scott Cu
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

On Jones' explosion: "There's nobody in the sport who's close to him because he runs his routes like he's running a fade every time. A slant. A curl. A hitch. A dig. It's like he's running a go ball. That is almost impossible to stop."

On his intellect: "Playing against him is almost like being in 007. You have to know your craft. You have to study your opponent to the 'T.' And then you have to go out there and be an assassin."

On his acceleration: "When he got the ball [against Green Bay], he didn't just get the ball. He got the ball and ran a 4.3."

On his chivalry: "I know I would not get a penalty or personal foul playing him. I will lose a game check knowing that."

Their last encounter, a Dec. 27, 2015, drubbing, still eats at Norman's conscience. Jones exploded for 178 yards and a touchdown in a Falcons win that ended Carolina's bid at a perfect season. And the corner admits now he was suffering the lingering post-traumatic stress of sparring with Beckham the week before. During that MMA bloodbath of a game, Beckham bee-lined at Norman's cranium and was suspended a game. Norman was fined $8,681 for a facemask and $17,363 for striking an opponent in the head/neck area. Cheap shots were constant. It's a miracle the officials didn't kick both out of the game immediately.

So into that Julio week, Norman didn't play Young Scooter's song once, nor did he watch nearly as much film.

Whoops.

"I just showed up like, 'Here we go. Let's do what we can do,'" Norman says. "And, boy, was I wrong! I didn't put as much time and effort...studying and preparing for him as I did before, and it showed, man."

Facing Jones is beautiful, calculated warfare. A test of mind, body and soul. Facing Beckham? Misery. Norman cannot amp himself up for his new twice-a-year foe. There's no excitement in facing Beckham. Zero thrill.

"What for?" Norman says. "I go out there. I contain him. I stay in front of him and don't let him score. F--k it. Catch some yards. I don't care. As long as I don't let you score, I don't care about all that other s--t. With Julio, I care about that because it's the sweetest sensation. I'm growing in the game. We're not talking back and forth. We're not talking s--t. Our play is talking.

"And when you can be in that moment in time? That's the sweetest sensation I could ever get. But f--king with this guy over here, you don't know if you're going to get blindsided or chop-blocked on this play! It's like, What the f--k? I'm looking over my back the entire time!

"That s--t is not fun."

When Norman speaks about Jones, his voice is slow and soothing. When he speaks about Beckham, it's fast and incredulous. One player makes him love football. The other makes him hate it.

Norman knows he'll need to set a check aside for inevitable fines every time he faces Beckham.

"It's so stupid," he says. "It's just ridiculous, man. It's like his Super Bowl. I don't give a f--k. I'm trying to win the game, obviously. And if I have to stop you to do it, so be it. But I don't even feel like I'm getting anything out of it."

Damn depressing stuff.

Bring up Jones' name to brighten the mood, and hey, he cheers up.

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Wide receiver Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons walks through the tunnel before taking on the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. C
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

"It's just good, clean football," he says. "Like, great s--t. Great s--t."

So Norman would kill to be Malcolm Butler, or whoever's facing Jones, to feel this sensation again. Butler absolutely has a Norman-like spunk to his game. An edge. Two years ago, he had the guts to jump a slant to Seattle's Ricardo Lockette that gave him a Super Bowl legacy. And back to his Division II days, when hardly any fans outside his own family tree knew he existed, Butler tweeted:

Here's your shot, kid. The world is watching you again.

Not that Norman is so sure you have a chance.

"Man, I like Butler, man, I just don't..." Norman says, laughing. "I don't...I don't want to be the one who's the bearer of bad news, man, but, I'm not going to be the bearer of bad news...See..."

He grovels and pauses and grovels some more.

Norman is told he's the one who knows Jones better than Jones. He's the cornerback connoisseur.

"I like Butler! It's just that Julio is a freak. This is a whole other different cat."

Then it hits Norman. No way will the Patriots let Jones beat them. No way would Belichick leave Jones alone in one-on-one coverage.

Right?

"If he does that," Norman promises, "it's going to be a lonnnggg day."

            

"They should be scared of him"

Jermaine Dupri can feel it. Hear it. See it. Sure, that dirty-birding 1998-99 Super Bowl run was fun. The Michael Vick experience? Unforgettable. But the man who penned "Welcome to Atlanta" sensed a totally different atmosphere in the Georgia Dome when he performed at halftime of the NFC title game.

"The energy in Atlanta," Dupri says, "is turnt up."

He doesn't have his own Jones track in the works but believes that name will be popping up in many a rap song this offseason. He's bringing the city to life and changing the game all at once. Dupri has hung out with Jones four or five times and describes the same soft-spoken person everyone else does.

Yet on the field, he's the living, breathing, stiff-arming personification of Lil Jon's "Turn Down for What."

"That song is perfect for Julio because he has no turn down in him," Dupri says. "He might run 30 yards as fast as he can possibly do it and then come right back the next play and run 50 yards and go get the ball.

"A bunch of people are playing the same position, but he's doing it in a way that a lot of guys are not."

On Sunday, we may be treated to an all-time classic.

A living-legend coach meets a living-legend receiver.

Belichick has coached in more than 10 percent of Super Bowls in NFL history, but he's never faced a conundrum like this. His first, obvious inclination is to never, ever, ever leave Jones alone in one-on-one coverage. The corner who replaced Norman was on the sideline with a toe injury when Jones went for 300 yards against Carolina this year. James Bradberry remembers a deafening "Ju-lio! Ju-lio! Ju-lio!" filling the stadium.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

And one play, Matt Ryan looked left before blindly chucking a bomb right to Jones for 43 yards.

"I don't think he cared who was over there," Bradberry says. "He was just throwing it up."

Adds Sharpe, "Nobody is holding Julio Jones one-on-one. They understand that. He understands that."

So Lofton anticipates Belichick will bracket Devin McCourty over the top of Butler to help on Jones...and even this could be a poison pill. Atlanta's MVP-worthy quarterback has exploited one-on-one matchups elsewhere all season. Against Green Bay, eight different players caught a pass in the first half alone. He threw touchdowns to 13 different players during the year, a league record.

That's the Julio effect.

He dictates everything. Even when you double him, he can detonate.

"You could play a great game against Julio, but he hits you up for 100," Sharpe says. "You play a bad game, and he'll go for two bills or three bills on you."

Each catch, each touchdown, each time the Patriots are forced to shade attention his way, Belichick's glistening legacy will take a hit. Back in the 2011 draft, he advised Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff "as a friend" not to mortgage so many picks to take Jones No. 6 overall. As written in War Room by Michael Holley, Belichick's assessment of Jones at the time was that he "struggles to get open on intermediate routes, doesn't play as fast as his superb timed speed suggests, and too often displays inconsistent hands."

Belichick viewed the wide receiver position as disposable, not capable of dictating an entire defense.

Yet here he is now. Searching for answers.

Publicly, Jones insists there is no extra motivation.

"It's not about Bill or New England," Jones says. "We've got to have our stuff tight."

If there was any motivation privately, he could not ask for a better stage.

Dupri offers a warning.

"He has the power, the juice in him to play against this team and not be scared," Dupri says. "They should be scared of him."

As the Falcons blared Sir Charles Jones' soulful "Friday" yet again two days before flying to Houston, the entire locker room was relaxed. Laughter filled the room. A few shimmied to the beat. And sitting at his locker, Goldson only shook his head when asked how Belichick will play Jones.

He has no clue. He doesn't really care.

"They have to figure that out," Goldson says, "on their own."

That's been the problem all these years for everyone in Jones' world.

Nobody has, and there's a chance nobody will.

So here's a cup, Julio. The bathroom's that way.

          

Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.

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