Eight days after the Atlanta Falcons made Julio Jones the highest-paid wide receiver in NFL history, the 30-year-old superstar used their 2019 home opener to show exactly why he's worth that $22 million average annual salary.
Jones finished with five catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns as the Falcons finally beat the Philadelphia Eagles 24-20 on Sunday night, but one play in particular did the trick.
It came just when it looked like the Falcons were destined to suffer their third heartbreaking loss to the Eagles in 20 months.
Philly led 20-17 with 2:20 on the clock. The aggressive Eagles defense was buzzing, and Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had completed only one of his last four passes. Atlanta faced a do-or-die 4th-and-3 on its own side of the field.
In a span of nine seconds, Jones fielded a Ryan toss at the line of scrimmage, turned on his jets and outran the Philadelphia defense for 54 yards, simultaneously scoring the game-winning touchdown and becoming the most prolific receiver in franchise history.
It was poetic, and it was a reminder that while fellow receivers DeAndre Hopkins, Michael Thomas and Odell Beckham Jr. are younger and arguably more en vogue, Jones remains one of the NFL's most dangerous offensive weapons.
Although Jones had only 31 receiving yards in Atlanta's ugly season-opening road loss to the Minnesota Vikings, his performance against Philadelphia indicates he's in for yet another epic season.
The 54-yard game-winning catch-and-run wasn't even Jones' best play Sunday night. He had a sideline catch in the second quarter that seemed to defy science while victimizing Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby. He later outmuscled Darby on a red-zone touchdown as well.
Jones has always been among the league leader in receiving yards, but after taking heat for not scoring enough touchdowns for a large chunk of his career, the six-time Pro Bowler has put that behind him. There's little doubt that he's again one of the league's preeminent big-play manufacturers, and the numbers bear it out.
Ever since scoring only five touchdowns across a 31-game stretch between the middle of the 2016 season and the middle of the 2018 season, the future Hall of Famer has found the end zone 11 times in Atlanta's last 11 games.
Here's how his numbers since the start of 2018 compare to those of Hopkins and Thomas, who were the first-team All-Pros last year:
|Pro Football Reference|
The Falcons cut it close Sunday night against a severely depleted opponent that was annihilated by in-game injuries. Ryan performed poorly, the running game was hardly a factor, and the defense couldn't take advantage of Philly's offensive injuries.
But despite all of that, Jones arguably saved the Falcons' season with his fourth-quarter heroics. When he's healthy and on his game, he can make an average team good or a good team great.
Mohamed Sanu is a solid No. 3 receiver, and sophomore Calvin Ridley is emerging quickly, but Jones' presence is a big reason why the latter has already become one of the league's most productive receivers.
Special players make those around them better, and they also come to the rescue when those around them need a savior.
In his first regular-season game in Atlanta since signing a historic new contract, Jones was that savior.
After their thrilling win, the Falcons are suddenly in a good place within a wide-open division in which nobody is 2-0. With New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees nursing a thumb injury that has him "concerned," according to ESPN's Mike Triplett, the Falcons may suddenly be front-runners in the NFC South.
With this version of Jones—the one who's every bit as fearsome as Hopkins, Thomas or Beckham—the Falcons have a shot of going on a deep playoff run.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.