Jones gives Falcons extra aerial weapon in battle with Giants

You have to twist Julio Jones' numbers a bit to make it work, and assume he'll be healthy in the future, but if you take the last six games the rookie dynamo has started and finished -- which excludes Atlanta's first game against New Orleans -- and lay the average out over a full 16-game season, you get 72 catches, 1,579 yards and 21 touchdowns. The yardage figure would be in the top 20 all-time, and the touchdowns would only be outranked by Jerry Rice in 1987 and Randy Moss in 2007.

Need I remind you that Jones is a rookie who doesn't turn 23 until February?

"Yeah, that's ridiculous," fellow receiver Roddy White said, as I presented the numbers to him. "He's been doing a good job, man. We need him out there, and he's got to stay healthy, especially for this playoff run that we want to make. We need him out there on the field. He makes things easier for everybody."

When Thomas Dimitroff pulled off a bold, stunning trade to move 21 spots up the draft board to get Jones, surrendering five picks (a No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 in 2011, and a No. 1 and No. 4 in 2012) in the process, part of the general manager's vision was to get the Falcons -- and quarterback Matt Ryan -- the new decade's Marvin Harrison/Reggie Wayne combination. The idea was having one player in his prime (Roddy White) opposite another developing guy at his position, each taking pressure off the other with his mere presence.

It's early. But it's hard not say this one is Mission Accomplished.

"I feel like we can absolutely do that, especially once he gets a year under his belt and he knows the offense a little bit better, and we both can go out there and just execute," White said. "We do a lot of stuff, we watch a lot of coaches' film, because that's the kind of offense we want to be -- I go to the right, he goes to the left, and we just go with it. That's what we want to do. You've seen a couple good things out of us, but it hasn't been consistent this year. And that's what we want to do."

One turning point came after the team's 2-3 start, with Jones staying late after practice to work on communication and down-the-field routes that required more reps to perfect. It's a practice that teammate Tony Gonzalez has been known to sell on younger Falcons. Jones averaged an off-the-charts 21.9 yards per catch in those last six games, and it's also crystal clear to the rookie and his quarterback where gains have come on a less tangible level.

Example: On a 17-yard touchdown against the Panthers in which Ryan called for Jones to motion in, setting up a one-on-one matchup, then knew which way Jones would break based on the corner's technique, Jones showed he's starting to see the game the way his quarterback sees it -- an essential part of the relationship between passer and receiver.

"Just something me and Matt have been working on, he'll bring me down, give me that one-on-one," Jones said. "And we might run that fade, because guys try to play off of me a little bit. Or they'll play inside me, and Matt will move me and give the corner a different look. They really can't know how to play me -- inside or outside, or head up. I can run the corner or the post, and it'll give me a two-way option. We scored on it. So I guess it's working."

Atlanta broke 30 points in just four of its first 12 games, then turned the trick three times in the final four weeks. That's not to say the Falcons are Super Bowl-bound. But this club is different than it was a couple of months ago, due in large part to the talent Dimitroff went to the mat to acquire in April.

"Early on, it was the plays, learning the offense and reading defensive schemes," Jones explained. "Now, I got that, and then towards the end of the year, it was injuries. I'm healthy and now I know the offense, and I'm clicking with Matt. Everything's been easy for me lately."

White, with 100 catches in the bank, concurs -- explaining that with Jones opposite him, "It's so much easier."

And it's more apparent by the day that Dimitroff & Co. are getting what they paid for in their early-20s superstar.

So that's why I see a mild upset taking place this wild-card weekend at the Meadowlands ...

Albert Breer went 10-6 with his predictions in Week 17 and finished 161-90 for the regular season. How will he fare in wild-card weekend? His picks are below, with home teams listed second:

A slugfest between clubs with rookie quarterbacks, it's hard for me to shake the image of Ray Rice running wild through the Cincinnati secondary last week for touchdowns of 70 and 51 yards. I think the Texans, likewise, will be able to control the pace of the game on the ground, and keep T.J. Yates' responsibilities limited just enough to survive another week.

Normally, when a game is screaming that it will be played a certain way, the opposite happens. Hard to see that happening here, since both defenses have their problems. As great as Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford have been, they have also combined for 30 picks. One of those could swing this game.

The New York pass rush has collected plenty of plaudits over the last month, and rightfully so. But it's also masked a secondary that could be a problem if Matt Ryan has time. And I'd bet dimes to dollars that the Falcons will keep more skill guys in to block, neutralize that Giants front, and give Ryan a chance to get the ball downfield to White and Jones.

OK, so this looks bad. But I'd bet this is a competitive game into the second half -- I just see Pittsburgh pulling away late. And I don't see Tebow getting much traction against a Steelers defense that has been without LaMarr Woodley, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and James Harrison for significant stretches of this season.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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