ATLANTA – You’d be hard pressed to find a more composed and confident athlete in his dealings with the media than Tony Gonzalez.
Yet there was Gonzalez talking about how he had never cried after a win – until Sunday, the first playoff victory in his brilliant career. Not until the Falcons’ miraculous 30-28 victory over the Seahawks sent them to the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco at the Georgia Dome next week.
Gonzalez has consistently said this season that he is 95 percent sure that this, his 16th year in the NFL, will be the final one in what is certain to be a Hall of Fame career. But talking on Sunday, he didn’t sound like that 5 percent of doubt loomed. He sounded like someone who knew his brilliant career was coming to an end without a playoff win to adorn it after going 0-for-5 in his previous five trips to the postseason.
Gonzalez thought he was going to be 0-for-6. The Falcons led by 20 entering the fourth quarter but he watched them blow it. They trailed 28-27 with 31 seconds left in regulation.
“At the end of the game, I thought, ‘Here we go again’ and ‘I guess it wasn’t meant for us to get a playoff victory, I guess for me individually, I guess it was never going to happen,’” Gonzalez said. “But the guys stuck in there … and we were able to make those plays.
“I tell you what, I am happy because emotionally it was up and down and what a rollercoaster of emotions. I’m spent right now, but I’m so happy that we were able to pull it out.”
Gonzalez was targeted seven times and caught six passes for 51 yards, including a one-yard touchdown. As usual, Gonzalez’s yards represented quality over quantity: four receptions went for first downs and a fifth was the touchdown.
Between the regular season and playoffs, Gonzalez owns a mind-boggling 1,264 receptions, second all time, and 106 of them have gone for touchdowns. But he said a rather ordinary 19-yard reception over the middle on Sunday was “probably the best” and “most important catch I ever had in my life.”
That’s because that catch, with 13 seconds left in regulation, set up Matt Bryant’s 49-yard, game-winning field goal.
“Shoot, I’ll never forget it,” Gonzalez said of his catch. “It was wonderful.”
Gonzalez arrived in Atlanta in 2009, improving what was an 11-5 team the year before, but head coach Mike Smith credited Gonzalez’s professionalism for getting the team to where it is.
“Watching him practice rubs off on everyone on our football team,” Smith said. “Not just the wide receivers, tight ends and offensive players. He affects everybody.”
Among those with whom Gonzalez is close is four-time Pro-Bowl wide receiver Roddy White. White said seeing Gonzalez so emotional was “kind of crazy.”
“But when you’ve been in the league 16 years and that’s the first time you win a playoff game, it’s going to be like that,” White said. “I’m happy for that guy. He deserves it. On to next week. I was like, ‘Hey, man, stop all the crying, let’s go.’”
So Gonzalez will have time to collect his emotions – a swing he said he had never experienced. He went from “I guess it wasn’t meant to be” to all remaining possible.
“One more thing,” he said. “Just because we got this victory, this isn’t it. I told you from the beginning, our goal is to try to get to the Super Bowl win and this is one step closer for us and I’m happy for it.”