Gonzalez’s career ends with another Falcons loss

Tony Gonzalez is ready for the next chapter of his life.

The Atlanta Falcons, after wrapping up an ugly 4-12 season,

won’t be the same without their superstar tight end.

Gonzalez reaffirmed Sunday that he doesn’t plan to play another

NFL game after the Falcons lost 21-20 to the Carolina Panthers.

”It’s time for me to go into the next stage of life just like

everybody else,” he said. ”Nobody’s immune to this, and the way

I’ve been able to go out on my own terms, it’s a blessing. And like

I said, I have no regrets.”

If his remarkable career is indeed finished, Gonzalez will look

back on his last game as something special.

Over 40 family members and friends stood on the right side of

the field as he jogged through the tunnel of noise, smoke and

adulation during pregame introductions.

His wife and three kids greeted him with hugs at halftime after

Falcons owner Arthur Blank presented him with a commemorative

helmet and the Georgia Dome flashed video highlights of his 12

years with Kansas City and five with Atlanta.

”It was just snapping in and out and trying to control those

emotions because they were running through me today – everything,”

Gonzalez said. ”I felt like crying at times, and then the game

comes up and you’re all intense, trying to go out there and do what

I’ve been doing for the last 17 years.”

Gonzalez ended the game with 56 yards receiving on four catches,

leaving him as the league’s No. 2 career leading receiver, a

13-time Pro Bowl pick and a six-time All-Pro first-team selection

who ranks fifth in yards receiving and sixth in touchdown

catches.

”This is like graduating to me,” he said. ”I’m going to miss

it. I’m going to miss my classmates – my teammates. I’m going to

miss my coaches – my teachers. I’m going to miss them.”

Sunday’s loss followed the form of so many other setbacks for

the Falcons this year.

They took the lead, blew the lead and came up a few plays short.

Again.

But Gonzalez stayed true to form by putting a positive spin on

the outcome, which was doomed after center Joe Hawley blew an

assignment in the closing seconds by snapping the ball past

quarterback Matt Ryan for a 16-yard loss.

”It’s offense, defense and special teams and then the ball’s

got to go your way,” Gonzalez said. ”We didn’t have that this

year. It seemed like the horseshoe fell out of our butts. Even in

this game today. We were driving, and everybody felt confident and

we were going to get the job done (almost) like last week in San

Francisco and then all of a sudden, it’s a fluke-type play.”

Ryan’s day ended with nine sacks, a single-game career high.

Carolina’s Greg Hardy was deployed in several different roles along

the line and finished with four sacks to help the Panthers set a

single-game record for sacks.

The Falcons lost after leading 7-0 on Jason Snelling’s 9-yard

touchdown catch in the first quarter, 10-0 on Matt Bryant’s 42-yard

field goal in the second and 17-14 on Roddy White’s 39-yard TD

reception in the third.

It seemed appropriate that Ryan’s last completion went to

Gonzalez for a 9-yard gain with 5 seconds left. Atlanta’s season

ended on the next play, an overthrown ball to White.

Gonzalez maintained his season-long stance that he feels no

disappointment for putting off retirement to help the Falcons reach

the Super Bowl.

They had come up just 10 yards short in the NFC title game last

season and seemed to have the pieces in place to make another

run.

But an abundance of injuries, a weak offensive line and a

defense prone to big plays ruined Atlanta’s chances, thus ending

Gonzalez’s career with just one playoff victory, a 30-28 thriller

last January against Seattle.

”Obviously it just wasn’t in my cards, and I’m OK with that,

honestly,” Gonzalez said. ”Don’t ever look at me and say, `Well,

he never won the big game.’ I hope there’s no glitch on my record

because of that, and if you think that way, I don’t know what

you’re talking about. I really don’t because this is the ultimate

team sport.”

White was among those bitterly disappointed that Gonzalez went

out with a loss after the Falcons went 45-19 over the previous four

years.

”I just feel bad for Tony because we wanted to send him out

with a win,” White said. ”But we just haven’t found any ways to

win this year. The fourth quarter hasn’t been ours all year.”

NOTES: Ryan moved past Steve Bartkowski to become the Falcons’

career-leading passer with 23,472 yards. … CB Asante Samuel was

active but did not play. With Atlanta committing to playing rookies

Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford and fourth-year cornerback Robert

McClain late in the season, Samuel took only one snap over the last

four games. … LB Sean Weatherspoon (knee) missed his second

straight game and was sidelined for nine games this year.

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