By Michael Cunningham The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATLANTA — From his days playing youth football to college at California and then throughout a pro career that will eventually put him in the Hall of Fame, Tony Gonzalez had never cried after a game.
Then again, he had never been through one like this.
After Atlanta’s improbable 30-28 victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at the Georgia Dome, it’s no wonder why Gonzalez’s no-cry streak ended at the same time as his playoffs drought.
“I was on the ground crying like a little baby,” Gonzalez said. “It was just so emotional — dips, highs and lows. It drains you. But I will take it. I will do it again next week if I have to.”
There will be another week for Gonzalez, who has said he’s 95 percent certain he’s retiring after this season. He won his first playoff game in six tries after it looked like his 16-year career would end with lots of accolades but without a postseason victory.
The Seahawks led 28-27 after Marshawn Lynch’s touchdown run with 31 seconds to play in the game.
“I was thinking on the sideline, ‘I guess this is it. This is how I’m going to go out,’” Gonzalez said. “That’s why I was so emotional. And then all of a sudden, it’s not (over). You are back in it.”
Gonzalez helped make it all happen.
Following Lynch’s touchdown, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan passed 22 yards to Harry Douglas to put the ball at midfield with 19 seconds to play. Like he’s done so many times during Gonzalez’s four seasons with the Falcons, Ryan looked to his tight end when he needed important yards.
Gonzalez’s 19-yard reception, moving the ball to the Seattle 31-yard line, was the kind of play that demonstrates his rare combination of speed, size, athleticism and precise route running. He ran right at Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner before pivoting back to the ball and shielding off Wagner with his body to make the catch.
“Tony is ‘Mr. Reliable,’” Ryan said. “He’s so consistent. He did a great job with the route and created separation to give me a good window to throw it.”
That became the catch that saved Atlanta’s season. One play later, Matt Bryant kicked a 49-yard field goal with eight seconds to play and the defense held off the Seahawks’ last possession.
“Probably the best catch I’ve ever had and probably one of the easiest,” Gonzalez said. “(Ryan) put it right in my chest. It’s the most important catch I’ve had in my life. I will never forget it. It was wonderful.”
Gonzalez finished the day with six catches for 51 yards and a touchdown. His impact on the game went beyond those numbers.
Twice Gonzalez made catches against tight coverage to convert third downs. On the his touchdown reception, Gonzalez leaped behind Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor and came down with his feet just inside the boundary.
It’s clear why Falcons head coach Mike Smith is holding out hope that Gonzalez will return for another season.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am for Tony Gonzalez personally,” Smith said. “He just did what he’s done his entire career. He’s a special football player and a special human being.”
This season Gonzalez was voted to the Pro Bowl for the 12th time and first-team All-Pro for the sixth time. Now there will be a playoff victory added to his resume.
“I can’t wait to get out to see my family because they’ve gone through it with me ever since I was in Pop Warner football,” Gonzalez said before leaving the locker room. “I’m probably more happy for them because I know how excited for me they were. And (also) the fans of Atlanta, because this is something that’s been a long time coming for a good football team.”