Falcons boosted by Julio Jones' return to practice

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Julio Jones is a game-changing wide receiver for the Atlanta Falcons — even when he's less than full speed.

That's why it was so important for the team's playoff hopes that Jones, recovering from a hip injury, returned to practice Friday. The Falcons will need their top offensive threat when the NFC South title is on the line Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.

Despite missing one game with the injury two weeks ago, Jones leads the NFC with 100 catches and 1,535 yards receiving. He had seven catches for 107 yards in last week's win at New Orleans, even though he continues to battle the injury.

"I'm not there yet, I can tell you that," Jones said Friday when asked if he was close to 100 percent.

Quarterback Matt Ryan said Jones impressed his teammates by playing through the injury last week.

"Everybody in this locker room knows how much this means to him and how competitive of a guy he is and how tough of a player he is," Ryan said. "I think guys really respect him for that."

The Falcons may be without starting running back Steven Jackson (quadriceps) against the Panthers. Jackson's injury makes Jones' status especially important.

"Julio is an integral part to our offense and our football team," coach Mike Smith said Friday. "He's very explosive. He creates explosive plays and he creates mismatches for defenses. It's going to be very important for us to create some explosive plays in the game this week."

Jones said he plans to play Sunday, though he was designated as questionable instead of probable on Friday's injury report.

"It's a mindset," Jones said. "I know I've got to be out there for my teammates and if I tell those guys upstairs and Mike Smith that I'm ready to go, then I'm ready to go and I'm going to give it my all."

Jones is enjoying a strong finish to the regular season. He has three straight games with at least 100 yards. He had 10 catches for 189 yards and a touchdown in a home win over Arizona on Nov. 30. Jones followed that with 11 catches for a franchise-record 259 yards and a touchdown at Green Bay on Dec. 8. He missed the loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 14.

"Julio has had an unbelievable year," Ryan said. "The production that he's showed has been impressive. Even for a teammate to step back and look at it, he's been incredibly impressive."

Jones had 79 receptions for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012, his second season. He was leading the NFL in catches when his 2013 season ended with a broken bone in his right foot in a Week 5 loss to the Jets. He broke the same bone during his college career at Alabama.

Jones earned his second Pro Bowl berth this year. His play has been a rare positive in a mostly disappointing season for the Falcons (6-9).

A win Sunday would give Atlanta a home playoff game the following week.

"The thing I like about this game is the opportunity," Jones said.

Receivers Roddy White (ankle) and Harry Douglas (foot) are listed as probable.

The bigger injury question appears to be Jackson, whose status is questionable. He left last week's win at New Orleans with the quadriceps injury.

Jackson was on the practice field but did not have a helmet in the portion of Friday's practice that was open to reporters. Smith said all the players on the injury report were "participating in practice at some level."

NOTES: There was a light-hearted end to the practice. Players cheered and Smith served as the referee as the Falcons' training staff beat the equipment staff in an annual flag football game. Smith cautioned the flag football teams against tackling because "We're going to need you on Sunday." ... PK Matt Bryant (sick) missed practice and is listed as probable. CB Josh Wilson (hamstring) is questionable.


Online: AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL


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