ATLANTA -- Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons' 36-year-old tight end, has seen it all in his 16-year career, and he has done most of it. He has played in 254 regular season games, more than all but 22 other players -- just eight of whom did not primarily play special teams -- ever have. He has made 1,242 receptions, more than anyone but Jerry Rice. He has caught 103 touchdown passes, 20 more than any other tight end.
On Sunday afternoon in Atlanta, though, in the moments after Matt Bryant's 49-yard field goal gave the Falcons a 30-28 lead with eight seconds left, and the Seahawks proved that eight seconds is not enough time for even them and their sensationally unflappable rookie quarterback, Russell Wilson, to mount a comeback, Gonzalez did a few things he never had before. One was that he wept, after a win.
"I was on the ground crying, like a little baby," said Gonzalez -- who was still red-eyed, but smiling broadly now -- in the locker room.
"I was like, 'Hey, man, stop all the crying! Let's go!'" recalled wideout Roddy White. "I'm happy for that guy. He deserves it."
Indeed, another thing that Gonzalez had never done before Sunday, for all his years on often competitive teams in Kansas City and then Atlanta, was to win a playoff game. "Sixteen years!" he exclaimed. "Six playoff games!" So he cried, in part, because he had finally accomplished what had started to seem unreachable, especially as, he says, he is 95 percent certain that he will retire after this season. But he cried, too, because of the unforgettable way he and the Falcons had finally accomplished it. "What a rollercoaster of emotions," he said. "I am spent right now. But I am so happy that we were able to pull it out."
It seemed, for most of the afternoon, that the Falcons would have little trouble doing just that. They led 20-0 at the half, and 27-7 as the fourth quarter began. By then, though, Wilson had begun to escalate his already high-level play -- he completed his first 10 passes of the second half, amassing 185 yards and two touchdowns during that streak -- and the rookie reached the level of the all-time great to which Falcons' coaches had during the week compared him in the fourth. "I asked [defensive coordinator] Mike Nolan, who does he play like?" head coach Mike Smith said. "He said, 'Fran Tarkenton.' Course, you tell the player Fran Tarkenton, half of them don't know who he is. But he is a special player."
In the fourth, Wilson -- who finished the day having completed 24 of 36 passes for 385 yards, and having rushed seven times for a team-leading 60 yards -- ran for a one-yard score, with 13 minutes left, to make the score 27-14. Then, less than four minutes later, he found tight end Zach Miller for a three-yard touchdown, after he'd needed only four plays to drive the Seahawks 62 yards down the field. Twenty-seven to 21. Then, in what seemed to be the backbreaker for the Falcons, he led a seven play, 61-yard drive that took just 2:29, which ended in a two-yard touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch.
It was, shockingly, 28-27 in the Seahawks' favor, and it appeared certain that they would succeed in doing what 56 of 57 teams before them had failed to do -- win a playoff game that they had trailed by 20 or more points at the half. Only 31 seconds remained on the clock, and Gonzalez knew it was likely his career was over. "I promise you, I was like, 'Here we go again, I guess it wasn't meant for us to get a playoff victory, especially for me individually,'" he would say. "I was like, 'I guess this is how I'm going to go out. I guess it's never going to happen.'"
But it did happen, after the Falcons needed just two plays to cover 41 yards to reach the Seahawks' 32-yard-line, set up Bryant's winning kick, and release the tears from Gonzalez's ducts. Make no mistake, however: this was far from a feel-good story in which a team comes together to finally pull out a playoff win for a beloved veteran, one who has been largely reduced, as the days of his career dwindle, to little more than a cheerleader. No, Tony Gonzalez was crucially involved in the Falcons' win on Sunday. More than that: it is very likely that they would not have been able to withstand the heroics of the 24-year-old Wilson, and go on to win, without him.
For one, Gonzalez made the catch that directly set up Bryant's field goal, a 19-yarder from quarterback Matt Ryan over the middle. "Probably the best catch I've ever had, even though it was one of the easiest, too, because Matt put it right in my chest," Gonzalez said. "It's the most important catch I've ever had in my life. Shoot, I'll never forget it. It was wonderful."
INSIDE GONZALEZ'S CLUTCH LAST-MINUTE CATCH
That reception, though, was not the only key one Gonzalez made on the day. He had six catches, in sum, for 51 yards. Nearly all of them were crucial to the Falcons' fortunes, nearly all of them were the result of precisely run routes, and on nearly all of them did Gonzalez appear to be covered, only to somehow make a minute repositioning of his body and reach out to make the grab. Of course, as White would say, "He's always open. That's what he wants, the guy to be close to him. That's his game. He played basketball half his life -- he just boxes people out and catches the ball."
Gonzalez's second catch came in the back of the end zone, and made the score 10-0 even though Kam Chancellor, the Seahawks' safety, seemed to be running with him ("Honestly, we had the same identical catch in practice this week, which is why you practice," Gonzalez said). It was Gonzalez's first touchdown in a playoff game since 2007; he had scored 42 in the regular season since then.
His fourth catch came on a 3rd-and-5 on the Falcons' first possession of the third quarter, and it was good for six yards, just enough to extend a drive that would end in a Ryan touchdown to Jason Snelling. Of course, the drive wouldn't have ended that way had Gonzalez, a few plays before, not converted another third down with his fifth catch, an 11-yarder on 3rd-and-9. You already know how Gonzalez's sixth catch turned out.
"He just did what he's done his entire career," Smith said.
Gonzalez had a lot to do with the fact that his career will extend at least one more week, but so did the Falcons' game plan, which gave them the 20-point cushion of which they would turn out to need every bit, and more. That game plan, surprisingly, had them relentlessly attacking Richard Sherman -- the Pro Bowler who, with Darrelle Revis injured, is widely viewed as the game's cover corner -- by throwing to whichever receiver Sherman happened to be covering, be it White, Julio Jones or Harry Douglas. "We feel like we have elite guys at our position, who can make plays no matter what," said Douglas, but it was more than that. They actively sought Sherman out, specifically.
They did so on the first play of the game, when Ryan threw deep to Jones down the right sideline. Sherman deflected it. Ryan went at Sherman again at the end of the game's first drive, and appeared as if he would find a cutting White for a 22-yard touchdown, but Sherman recovered and knocked the ball away, as only an elite corner can. Ryan again tried to beat Sherman with 5:22 remaining in the first -- Sherman stayed step-for-step with White down the sideline -- and then he did it again, throwing deep down the sideline to Jones to start the second quarter. After that ball fell incomplete, Sherman twirled his finger near his temple. The Falcons' plan, he suggested, was as crazy as it was obvious.
Then, though, Ryan and the Falcons finally burned Sherman, for a 47-yard touchdown to White to make the score 20-0, which would stand up through the half. "He's a bit of a talker," White said, "and I just asked him to talk to me for a little while. He didn't have too much to say to me after that play. He didn't want to talk anymore, after that. He's a good player, though. He's no Revis. But he did a heck of a job, knocked some balls down when he was beat."
The point of all this, of course, was not just to quiet a mouthy opponent. The point was to establish, firmly, that the Falcons' strength -- Ryan and his collection of superstar-caliber receivers -- cannot be overpowered by a defense's strength. "We got Pro Bowl players on this team, and we're not going to throw it to us because he's out there? Come on, man," White said. "We don't care who is out there."
That is the attitude with which the Falcons will approach next week's NFC Championship in the Georgia Dome, against a 49ers">49ers team that in many ways looks similar to the Seahawks. Seattle was sixth in passing defense during the regular season (203.1 yards per game); San Francisco was fourth (200.2). "There's going to be a chance to hit some shots down the field, and we have to take advantage of those," White said.
They will hope to do that, but what they can count on is another spectacularly reliable game from Gonzalez, who, as he left the locker room, was still overwhelmed. "Dips, highs and lows," he said. It drains you. But I'll do it again next week, if I have to."