ATLANTA — With so many teammates hurting, Julio Jones had to play an even bigger role for the Atlanta Falcons.
He was up to the task.
Jones matched the best game of his career with 182 yards receiving, including an 81-yard touchdown catch, and the Atlanta Falcons held on for their first win of the season, 31-24 over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.
“I know the other guys on the field are counting on me to make those plays when the ball comes my way,” Jones said.
Matt Ryan threw for 374 yards and two scores despite taking quite a beating behind the Falcons’ shaky offense line. Jason Snelling clinched it for the Falcons (1-1) with an 11-yard touchdown run with 6:12 remaining, Atlanta’s longest play of the day on the ground.
There were plenty of flaws in the Falcons’ performance – hardly any running game, a lack of protection for Ryan, not much pressure on Rams quarterback Sam Bradford – but they’ll take it considering all the players who went down.
Five starters were done by halftime: running back Steven Jackson (thigh), linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (foot), defensive end Kroy Biermann (right ankle), cornerback Asante Samuel (thigh) and fullback Bradie Ewing (shoulder).
“While you don’t want see anybody go down, nobody panicked, nobody blinked,” said Ryan, who was sacked twice and hit eight times after throwing. “We just stayed the course.”
The Rams (1-1) fell behind 21-0 when Osi Umenyiora returned an interception 68 yards for a touchdown. Atlanta led 24-3 at halftime before St. Louis fought back on a pair of short touchdown passes by Bradford, who finished with 352 yards and three TDs.
Jones also put up 182 yards receiving in last season’s NFC title game.
“Julio and Matt seemed to be in sync,” coach Mike Smith said. “They were seeing the defense the same way.”
Atlanta turned in the drive it needed to clinch it, throwing on eight straight plays before Snelling’s TD run. St. Louis scored again with 2:09 left when Bradford connected with Tavon Austin for their second scoring play of the game. But the Falcons managed to run out the clock.
“We ran with them all day,” Rams defensive end Robert Quinn said. “We just needed to make a few players earlier in the game.”
The Falcons escaped with a victory they absolutely had to have if they wanted to show they are a legitimate Super Bowl contender, avoiding their first losing streak since 2009. They have now won 13 straight coming off a loss.
Jackson, facing the team he played with the last nine years, capped Atlanta’s opening drive with an 8-yard touchdown catch, but the celebration was short-lived. Apparently injured when he stretched for the goal line, he walked slowly to the locker room and didn’t return.
Then it was Jones beating Janoris Jenkins in man-to-man coverage, breaking free down the middle for the longest reception of his career to make it 14-0. Umenyiora extended the lead when he picked off a deflected pass and showed surprising speed in front of the Rams bench. He then staggered to the sideline, smiling, and grabbed an oxygen mask.
The Rams could’ve folded. Instead, they really began teeing off on Ryan in the second half. While the Atlanta offense bogged down, Austin hauled in a 6-yard scoring pass late in the third, and Austin Pettis’ 3-yard TD catch made it 24-17 with just under 12 minutes remaining.
Atlanta turned to Jones to clinch it. He hauled in a short pass and broke free on a 22-yard play. Then, on third-and-3 at the Rams 40, Ryan rolled to his left away from pressure and lobbed a pass that Jones leaped up to grab for an 18-yard gain.
Three players later, Snelling ran it in.
“We never believe we’re out of the game until the clock says zero,” Quinn said. “We just fell a play or two short.”