ATLANTA — He stood on the sideline cursing his fate, convinced that playoff satisfaction was not meant to be — for him or his frustrated franchise.
(Expletive), it's over. It's (expletive) over. We had it, and we blew a 20-point lead? I guess this is how I go out. I can't believe it …
Suddenly and defiantly, he snapped out of his trance and rallied his teammates, imploring them to fight to the finish.
Then, with his career hanging in the balance and the Atlanta Falcons' season one misstep away from a crushing conclusion, Tony Gonzalez did what he has done better and more frequently than any tight end in NFL history: He got open and caught the ball.
Who better than one of the most sure-handed football players of all time to seize the moment?
Thanks to the sweetest reception of Gonzalez's storied career, a 19-yard catch of a Matt Ryan spiral into the middle of the Seattle Seahawks' defense, the Falcons didn't go down as postseason chokers of epic proportions. And thanks to Matt Bryant's 49-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining, Atlanta pulled out a dramatic, 30-28 NFC divisional-round playoff victory Sunday over the unshakeable Seahawks, sending 70,366 fans at the Georgia Dome into a celebration that was equal parts elation and relief.
As he took it all in, Gonzalez fell to the turf on the Falcons' sideline and let it all out — 16 seasons' worth of yearning for a triumph this meaningful, and all the pent-up emotion that had him bawling like an "Oprah" guest.
"I've never, ever cried like that," Gonzalez said later as he celebrated with friends and family members in a parking lot across from the Dome. "I was down on the ground, crying — I was literally shivering. It's 16 years of frustration coming out, so much relief and so much happiness. That's the most emotional I've ever been."
The most emotional that Gonzalez, a husband and father, has ever been on a football field?
"The most emotional — period," he said.
It was a catch and release for the ages, and Gonzalez had his reasons. Given that he is "95 percent sure" that this will be his final season, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer, who ranks second to Jerry Rice on the league's all-time reception list (1,242 in the regular season), averted an ignominious and empty-handed exit. He also played a major part in helping the Falcons' power trio — Ryan, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff — shed a collective stigma of conspicuous postseason futility.
Instead of providing a painful confirmation of their "Regular Season Warriors" label, the top-seeded Falcons survived to fight another day. And when they host the second-seeded San Francisco 49ers in Sunday's NFC championship game — with the winner to face either the New England Patriots or Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII — there won't be nearly as much pressure on the home team as there was when the wild-card Seahawks arrived at the Georgia Dome.
"Everybody in this locker room felt the pressure," veteran center Todd McClure said afterward. "And if you ask anybody in here and they say anything different, they're lying. It was a lot of pressure. I know our QB had to feel it, and our head coach. It didn't stop there. Everybody felt it. I've never been more nervous for a game than I have for this one, just knowing what was hanging around it."
Had the Falcons lost this game, in the words of safety Thomas DeCoud, "It would have been a [expletive] storm."
Yet early on, it was the Seahawks who seemed to be dealing with a deluge of Atlanta's balanced and dynamic offensive excellence.
Unlike in their trilogy of underwhelming postseason outings in the Dimitroff/Smith/Ryan era, the Falcons came out with a healthy surplus of energy and execution. Gonzalez, who led the Falcons with 93 receptions in 2012, scored the game's first touchdown on a ridiculously exquisite catch, leaping to snatch Ryan's crisply thrown pass in the back of the end zone and grazing his right foot just inside the chalk line.
That made it 10-0 Falcons with 3:10 to go in the first quarter, and the lead would double by halftime. The Seahawks did their part by squandering a pair of second-quarter possessions inside the red zone, first on a failed fourth-and-1 fullback dive (with safety William Moore stuffing Michael Robinson) and, on what turned out to be the final play of the first half, Jonathan Babineaux's third-down sack of rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.
When the Falcons answered Seattle's touchdown drive at the start of the third quarter with a 14-play, 80-yard march that ended with running back Jason Snelling taking a short shovel pass from Ryan into the end zone, it was 27-7, and tens of thousands of Georgians exhaled. However, the Seahawks —who'd fought back from a 14-0 deficit to defeat the Washington Redskins, 24-14, in a first-round playoff game the previous Sunday — were about to become football's equivalent of General Sherman.
As Wilson (24-of-36, 385 yards, two touchdowns; seven carries, 60 yards, one TD) coolly torched the Falcons' defense on three fourth-quarter touchdown drives, Ryan (24-of-35, 250 yards, three touchdowns) and his offensive teammates became tentative and disconcerted. Only once on 57 previous playoff occasions had a team that trailed by 20 points or more at the half come back to win: The 1992 Buffalo Bills, who famously overcame a 32-point deficit to the Houston Oilers to win an overtime classic.
When Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch bulled into the end zone from 2 yards out with 31 seconds remaining, and newly signed kicker Ryan Longwell banged home the extra point for a 28-27 lead, it sure looked like the Falcons were about to join those Oilers in the Chokers' Hall of Shame.
Weirdly enough, after Gonzalez stood at his locker recounting the horror he felt following Lynch's score, he got a hearty embrace from an esteemed visitor: Hall of Famer Warren Moon, the Oilers' quarterback in that notorious defeat.
Even before Lynch gave Seattle its first lead, Gonzalez's mind was descending to a dark place. Having lost his previous five playoff games — three with the Kansas City Chiefs, two after joining the Falcons in a 2009 trade — he knew the sick feeling that awaited him. In this case, given the likelihood that it was his last game and the brutality of the squandered opportunity, there was no antidote on the horizon.
"You tell yourself, 'Hey, I guess it just wasn't meant to be,' and try to look at the spiritual side of things, and try to have acceptance," he said. "You start trying to rationalize: Maybe it's just not gonna happen. I thought, '27-7 and we blew it? Statistically, how common is that?' It's got to be ridiculously high, your percentage of winning, when you have that type of lead. You're supposed to win the game. And we couldn't pull it out. We couldn't hang on."
The despair didn't last, however. Gonzalez looked up and saw that 31 seconds remained and that the Falcons had two timeouts. He remembered that, for all his postseason failings, Ryan had earned his "Matty Ice" nickname, having engineered game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime 21 times in his five-year career, including five previous occasions in 2012.
"I thought, 'It's a long shot that we're gonna win this game,' " Gonzalez said in the parking lot. "But I knew there was a shot. I thought, 'It's a small chance. But we've got a chance.' "
Galvanized, Gonzalez gathered a group of offensive teammates (receivers Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas and running backs Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers) on the sidelines and told them, "We've been here before. We can get this done. Believe."
Rodgers kept hope alive with a kickoff return to the Atlanta 28-yard line. "We need 30 yards," tackle Tyson Clabo told his teammates in the huddle, and Ryan said, "Look — we're gonna make some plays and then we'll score."
Ryan rifled a sideline pass to Douglas for a 22-yard gain on first down, and the Falcons called timeout with 19 seconds remaining. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter sent in a play that called for Gonzalez and White to run 15-yard "stop" patterns side-by-side.
"They were in Cover-3, like always," White said, referring to a zone defense with one safety deep. "We ran a zone-beater. [Strong safety] Kam Chancellor was caught in between [White and Gonzalez]."
When Ryan got to the line and surveyed the defense, he knew where he was going with the ball. So did his intended target: "Once I saw the matchup," Gonzalez said, "I was like, 'OK, I think it's coming to me.' "
He had to get open, of course, and Gonzalez did, slipping past middle linebacker Bobby Wagner before turning to receive the ball at the Seattle 36. As he caught it he smartly spun to his left and evaded Wagner's tackle, gaining an extra five yards — huge, from Bryant's perspective — before linebacker K.J. Wright and free safety Earl Thomas got him down.
After that, it was all over but the crying. Well, that's not really true. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called timeout before the field-goal snap to ice Bryant, who took a practice kick anyway — and watched it sail wide right. The do-over went right down the middle with eight seconds to go, but even then, Gonzalez and the Falcons would still have to sweat this one out.
"We've always got to make it dramatic," White said. Sure enough, Bryant's hard squib kick was recovered by Heath Farwell at the Seahawks' 46, and Wilson completed a quick, six-yard sideline pass to Doug Baldwin, giving Seattle a final shot with two seconds to go.
Realistically, the 38-year-old Longwell, signed earlier in the week to replace the injured Steven Hauschka, wasn't going to make an NFL-record 65-yard field goal. The Seahawks' only chance would be a Wilson pass to the end zone — and who else but the kid who delivered the 2012 season's most infamous hail mary (or, if you're a Packers fan, the "Fail Mary") was fixing to let it fly?
Would Seattle get a second miracle this season? Everyone in the Dome held his/her breath. Wilson got the ball into the end zone, in the vicinity of receiver Sidney Rice, but there were no replacement officials to be found. Besides, the Falcons had a prayer-buster: Jones, the ultra-physical second-year wideout, was playing defensive back and preparing to do what he does best.
Suffice it to say that no Seattle receiver was likely to push Jones out of the play, a la Golden Tate on Sam Shields, and that "simultaneous possession" is not in the receiver's vocabulary.
"No, I'm not having that," Jones said afterward. "I'm taught to bat that ball down. But I saw Sidney Rice in front of me, and I went up and got it at its highest point. I did what I do."
Jones' interception ended the game and extended Gonzalez's career, at least for another week. Like his quarterback, head coach and so many others in the Falcons' organization, the 36-year-old tight end would go to sleep Sunday night with the satisfaction that the "can't-win-in-the-playoffs" dark mark had been permanently removed from his dossier.
As he stood by his car in the dank parking lot outside the Dome, surrounded by the smiles of friends and relatives, Gonzalez got choked up once more.
"I just so wanted to win," he said softly. "The game was so tough. What an emotional roller coaster. There were so many highs and lows. And now that it's over, there's so much relief.
"It's so good to get that playoff monkey off your back."
1. If the Falcons are looking for a lesson on how to put away a team in the postseason, they need only study the Patriots' final touchdown in their 41-28 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday. Leading 31-13 early in the fourth quarter, New England stopped the Texans on fourth-and-1 and took over at the Houston 33. Tom Brady dropped back and saw second-year running back Shane Vereen split wide to his left and covered by inside linebacker Barrett Ruud. Brady rudely launched a deep ball for Vereen, who ran a double move to get separation down the sideline and caught it for his third touchdown of the day. Goodnight, Texans; hello, New England's seventh AFC championship game appearance in the Brady/Bill Belichick era.
2. Instead of the Brady-Peyton Manning showdown most of us anticipated, we'll be treated to an AFC championship game rematch featuring the Patriots and Baltimore Ravens, who showed their heart in a 38-35 overtime upset of the Broncos in Denver on Saturday. "Heart and soul," coach John Harbaugh said via text Sunday. And arm — as in the potent upper-right appendage belonging to fifth-year quarterback Joe Flacco, whose 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones tied the game with 31 seconds left in regulation and was part of a career-defining performance. Flacco, whose contract expires after the 2012 season, also made himself some serious scratch with his 331-yard performance in the freezing cold. ("Yes he did," said receiver Anquan Boldin.) Flacco will likely receive the franchise tag after the season as he and the Ravens negotiate a long-term deal, but it's clear that with Ray Lewis retiring, he's about to become "The Man" in Baltimore.
3. Two days before the 49ers hosted the Green Bay Packers in the other NFC divisional-round game, San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman said he didn't believe second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick's performance would be a referendum on coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to bench Alex Smith late in the season. "I think he's done enough already to justify the move," Roman said. "Anybody that knows anything about football can look at the kid and see he's got a lot of tools." If they couldn't before, they can now. Kaepernick was flat-out phenomenal in Saturday's 45-31 thrashing of the Pack, which included 181 rushing yards — an NFL single-game record for a quarterback, including the regular season — and 263 yards through the air. A couple of months ago who could have imagined that 49ers fans would not only be saying "Alex Who?" come playoff time, but "Aaron Who?" as well?
4. Remember that whole "Curse of the Super Bowl Loser" thing? That's so last decade: Of last year's four conference-title game participants, only the team that won Super Bowl XLVI, the New York Giants, didn't make it back to the penultimate round. And, once again, we could get an all-Harbaugh Super Bowl if the Niners and Ravens prevail. Who's got it better than … wait, never mind.
5. The worst news of the weekend: Robert Griffin III's knee injury may be more problematic than initially feared. If you like football, pray that the kid has a smooth and lasting recovery.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
– Text Saturday night from Ravens defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs, gunning for his first Super Bowl appearance.
"It's what you sign up for!"
– Text Saturday night from Broncos coach John Fox.
"Tough way for my old ass to go out…"
– Text Sunday morning from Broncos linebacker Keith Brooking.
"I was hoping for a shot 60 or in. We could have made that"
– Text Sunday night from Longwell.
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