ATLANTA – Late in the first half of Sunday night's game against the Dallas Cowboys, with his team down a field goal and buried in its own territory, Atlanta's Julio Jones looked around the huddle as his teammates centered themselves during a timeout. He stared each one of them in the eye as he preached a message of motivation: Don't get down. Don't get burned. Play smart. Score.
As the timeout wound down and the Georgia Dome crowd around them thundered, fellow wide receiver Harry Douglas clapped Jones on the shoulder. "Man," he said, "you have grown up a lot."
Three plays and thirty-five yards later, Atlanta's Matt Bryant closed out the half with a field goal, and Atlanta would never again trail Dallas in its 19-13 victory.
There's much to admire about this Falcons team, from the thundering how-do-they-stay-upright running game of Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers to the ascendant quarterback play of Matt Ryan. But if the Falcons are going to break their longstanding postseason jinx – Atlanta has reached exactly one Super Bowl in its existence, and has not won a playoff game since a guy named Michael Vick left town – they'll do so through the air.
"We have some unbelievable players on our football team, but specifically our wide receivers and tight ends," Ryan said after the win. "We've got some playmakers, and I'm lucky to have them around me. I've had a lot of time on task with Roddy [White] and Julio and with Tony [Gonzalez] and Harry. They're certainly fun to be around; they're hard workers and have tremendous talent."
Atlanta's aerial attack ranks in the top 10 in most major passing stats, including completion percentage, yards per catch and touchdowns. The Falcons' pick-your-poison attack opens up the entire field for Ryan, and every single one of his receivers has come through in key moments this season.
Consider Sunday night, which for Ryan was the quarterbacking equivalent of a long road trip with a broken radio. He threw for 342 yards, completing 24 of his 34 passes without an interception. But he also didn't throw for a touchdown; much of the game took place between the 20-yard lines. It made for a game that wasn't pretty, but it still goes in the books as a win.
Credit the receiving corps with an assist on this one, then. "The thing I'm most proud of about what the receiving corps did is set up the run game," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said after the game. "They blocked downfield, and that allowed us to make those big gains we did."
For most of the past four years, Matt Ryan's aerial attack has had a similar approach: look downfield, but go to Gonzalez as the bailout. Gonzalez is still catching passes at a franchise-player clip, but now the rest of the Atlanta receiving corps is matching him stride for stride.
"We do everything together," Douglas said as White's young son playfully kicked at his ankles. "It's not just on the field, it's off the field too. We go bowling together. We go eat together. We spend time with each other's families. We're like brothers."
And like brothers, they recognize the importance of family, even over individual achievement. When White caught a 20-yard pass early in the third quarter, he became Atlanta's all-time career receptions leader, topping Terance Mathis. And after the game, he professed not to even care about the record.
"I didn't even think about it," he said. "I was just wanting the win so bad."
Jones, who finished with five catches for 129 yards against Dallas, echoed the team-first ethos: "This is bigger than me," he said after the game, shrugging into a red-and-gold jacket that looked like part of the "Iron Man" casual collection. "I'm just trying to fit into this offense."
[Winners/losers: Andrew Luck gaining ground on Robert Griffin III]
He's doing more than that. Of the entire receiving corps, it's Jones who's come the farthest. A talented receiver out of the University of Alabama, Jones arrived last year with the Falcons having mortgaged the draft-pick farm to get him. After a flashy but inconsistent first year, he's developed into exactly the kind of big-play receiver the Falcons expected him to be.
"I had to find me," he said of his growth as a receiver. "I didn't get to go through OTAs [Offseason Training Activities] before [this offseason], and I was making the adjustment from college to the pro game. There are so many different options now, but I've finally gotten to the point where I can play fast."
If there's a critique – and until this team wins a ring, there's always a critique – of the receiving corps, it's the one that bedeviled Atlanta on Sunday night. The Falcons can't afford to let scoring opportunities that they had against Dallas slip away against better teams. Dallas managed to fire six-shooters into its own cleats over and over again. By all rights, Atlanta should have been down at least a couple touchdowns at the end of the first half.
"It was just that kind of game, back and forth," White said. "We didn't have good field position, couldn't drive the ball down and convert on third downs. All those things are fixable."
It's easy to write off all this band-of-brothers business as just talk. After all, White has at times come across as arrogant without cause, Jones as flash-over-substance, Gonzalez as petulant and craving respect for his team. (Douglas hasn't yet done or said anything to get himself into trouble.) But all of them seem to have bought into the Matt Ryan-Mike Smith style of wins-first, dazzle-later, and it's a primary reason why Atlanta is halfway to a perfect regular season. To hear Douglas tell it, that's not going to stop:
"We go hard so that it makes the games easier," he said. "We're not going to take any time off until we've done what we know we can do."
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