On the surface, there isn’t a whole lot to like about Sunday’s game between the Cardinals (3-10 and the Falcons (4-9) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. On paper, it’s actually a whole lot of ugly.
But if you like intrigue and drama, you might want to tune in and catch the game within the game. It’s the one element that might really be able to capture your full attention.
It’s the one-on-one matchup between Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson and Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones. They are two of the very best at their respective positions and it’s the continuation of a personal rivalry that began when they each were collegiate standouts – Peterson at LSU and Jones at Alabama.
“I put him on notice on Tuesday – ‘Let’s go. Best versus best,’ ” Peterson said, referencing a post he shared on social media. “These are the type of matchups I live and thrive for. I’m sure he’s the same way. This is why you play the game of football. This is why Hall of Famers are Hall of Famers. This is why greats are greats.
“It’s because they look forward to these types of matchups. And I want to make sure I’m doing everything I can to make sure I’m on top of my game.”
Both players have been dynamite throughout their careers and specifically, this season, even though their teams haven’t played up to par. Peterson has only allowed 25 total receptions, the second-fewest by a cornerback in 2018. Jones leads the NFL with 1,429 receiving yards – becoming the first player in league history to record 1,400 or more in five consecutive seasons. And he ranks fourth this year with 94 receptions.
Jones missed almost all of practice in the days leading up to this game because of a sore foot, a calf strain and an illness. But he’s fully expected to play according to Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who said, “Julio and Pat, that’ll provide for some really good ball.”
“I know he hasn’t practiced … but I know he’s going to bring his ‘A’ game because he’s arguably the best receiver in the league this year,” Peterson said. “And having five consecutive seasons of 1,400 yards, he don’t need much practice at this point, right?”
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Peterson hasn’t allowed a single wide receiver to finish with 80 or more receiving yards in a game since Jones mostly beat up on him for 10 receptions and 189 yards with a touchdown during a 29-18 Falcons’ win back in 2014 season. That game still haunts Peterson.
“The worst game I ever played,” he said. “We came into the locker room and I told the guys, ‘I let you down.’ Because if he didn’t have that big game, if he didn’t go off the way he went off, I believe the game would have been much more manageable for us to win.
“From that point on, I was like, ‘Man, something has got to change.’ I told myself, ‘That can’t happen again.’ ”
Peterson got the better of Jones in the other two matchups that sandwiched that game. He held Jones to a very pedestrian three catches for 33 yards and no touchdowns in 2012 and held him to four receptions for 35 yards and no touchdowns in 2016.
“They’ve been going at it for a while,” Cardinals safety Antoine Bethea said. “Two of the best players at their position in the league, so it’s definitely going to be a dog fight and it’s going to be fun to be out there while it’s happening.”
Not that Bethea will be able to see the competition play out on every single snap, but he’ll watch when he can.
“I’m not going to be able to watch too much, but I know what’s going to be happening,” he said. “Again, it’s two great players going at it. Eventually, I will get the chance to look at it, even if it’s just watching film.”
Even though they haven’t played against each other a ton, Peterson and Jones essentially came into the league joined at the hip. Peterson was drafted fifth overall, Jones sixth. And since then, they’ve each crafted wonderful careers for themselves, earning multiple Pro Bowl selections (seven for Peterson, five for Jones) and first-team All Pro status (three times for Peterson, twice for Jones).
“I think it’s going to be a great matchup,” Cardinals coach Steve Wilks said. “You’re talking about two of the best at their position. Who knows? Those two guys could be future Hall of Famers. It’s going to be a great contest. I know Patrick is excited about – I don’t want to call it a challenge – but the opportunity to be able to cover Julio.”
The game itself might not amount to much, but everybody wants to see Peterson vs. Jones.
“Neither one of us has any playoff implications,” Peterson said. “I wouldn’t even say (the game’s) about pride, but what you want to be remembered for, at the end of the day.”
Even Jones at less than 100 percent could make it a long day for Peterson, according to Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
“It’s out of this world,” Fitzgerald said, when asked what his respect level is for Jones. “To do what he’s done, have five straight 1,400-yard seasons, nobody’s ever done that. He’s a mutant, man. There’s nobody like him in the game. To be that fast, that explosive, that abrupt in terms of changing direction in his route running, is unbelievable.
“He’s done a great job of bringing (rookie Calvin) Ridley along and I think Mohamed Sanu is one of the best interior guys. I mean those three guys together, they make the best combination of receivers in the National Football League.”
But which player is going to get the better of the other when it comes down to Peterson vs. Jones?
“Oh, P2, no doubt,” Bethea said, laughing. “Just ask him.”