The old pro was on the sideline, resigned to the fact that this would turn out like so many games of the past. In the 16 years Tony Gonzalez has played tight end in the NFL, so many seasons ended early that he couldn’t expect this one to be any different.
If football is a cruel game, it had been even crueler to Gonzalez. No matter what he did, no matter how well he played, the end result always seemed to be the same.
He might be the greatest tight end in the history of the game. But he’s never played in a Super Bowl, never even gotten to a conference championship game.
Incredibly, he had never been on a winning playoff team, something that was on his mind as Marshawn Lynch scored on a 2-yard run with 31 seconds left to put the Seattle Seahawks on the verge of a stunning comeback win against the Atlanta Falcons.
Even worse was the thought that this game would almost surely be his last. Gonzalez isn’t doing a Ray Lewis retirement tour, but he gave every indication all season long that he would be doing something different on Sundays next year.
“I guess this is it,” Gonzalez thought as he stood watching the final seconds. “Going out with a heartbreaking loss.”
Not just yet he isn’t. Not after collecting himself enough to run a perfect route and make the catch that set up a last-second winning field goal by Matt Bryant to give the Falcons a 30-28 win.
Instead of moving out, he’s moving on. The Falcons are a game away from the Super Bowl, and if Lewis can fire up the Baltimore Ravens with his pending departure, maybe the Falcons can take some inspiration from a veteran so overcome by what happened that he cried.
“I’m just so happy right now I can’t explain it,” Gonzalez said. “This is playoff football at its best.”
Interesting that Gonzalez could even recognize it. For years he played on teams in Kansas City that made the playoffs only occasionally and once there never won a game. Then he hooked up with the Falcons, only to be on the losing end of playoff games the last two seasons, neither of which he played particularly well.
He began making up for all that on Sunday by balancing precariously in the back of the end zone in the first quarter for the first Atlanta touchdown of the day. But it was the 19-yard catch up the middle when nothing but a catch would save the Falcons with 14 seconds left that might end up being the defining moment of his brilliant career.
No heartbreaker this time. The big guy finally had a big win.
“Probably the best catch I’ve ever had, even though it was one of the easiest,” Gonzalez said. “Matt put it on my chest. It’s the most important catch I’ve had in my life. I’ll never forget it.”
The Seahawks probably won’t either. They had to figure the Falcons were going to the man quarterback Matt Ryan calls Mr. Reliable when they needed it the most, yet they could do little against a perfectly run route that gave Ryan just the window he needed to squeeze a throw in.
Neither will Atlanta fans, who, like Gonzalez, still had some agonizing moments waiting to see if Bryant could hit the 49-yarder for the win. While Ryan had a bad angle to watch the kick and listened to the crowd to see what happened, Gonzalez was sprawled on the turf, in tears as the emotions spilled out as the kick split the uprights.
“I’ve cried after a loss, but never a win,” he said. “I thought it was over. Sixteen years. Six playoff games. I was like, ‘here we go again.’ Especially with that big lead. I thought it just wasn’t meant to be.”
That it was means the Falcons will play again next week against San Francisco with the winner going to the Super Bowl. It’s the kind of thing Gonzalez could hardly imagine with the Chiefs; the kind of thing that up until now seemed just out of reach for the Falcons.
They’ll be underdogs despite being at home, and they’ll need to put this one behind them to be competitive against a 49er team that was at its best Saturday in a lopsided win over Green Bay. Odds are good they won’t have a 20-point halftime lead like they did against the Seahawks, and a defense that couldn’t seem to stop Russell Wilson in the second half will have to somehow find a way to contain Colin Kaepernick, who is even more dangerous while on the run.
Whatever happens, though, one thing is for sure: Gonzalez won’t have to spend his retirement years explaining how he caught 103 touchdown passes in 238 regular season games, yet somehow couldn’t find a way to help his team win when it mattered most.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am for Tony Gonzalez personally,” coach Mike Smith said. “He just did what he’s done his entire career. He goes out and plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played. He’s a special football player and he’s a special human being.”
Gonzalez also has a feeling now that there might be something special about what is almost surely his last season.
“Just because we got this victory, this isn’t it,” Gonzalez said. “Our goals are still trying to get to the Super Bowl and winning it. So this is one step closer for us.”
After 16 years, it might have been the biggest step of his career.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.