At this point it's no secret the struggles in the postseason the Falcons have had. Under head coach Mike Smith, Atlanta has taken three trips to the playoffs but has come away with nothing but disappointment. On Sunday against the Seahawks they had a chance to correct that. Winning the NFC's No. 1 seed, they'd played their way into the right to host home playoffs games following last week's bye and things were setting up nicely.
They still had to win the game and get the proverbial monkey off their back.
The last-minute heroics of the Falcons' offense and eventually Matt Bryant gave the Falcons a comeback win, 30-28 over the Seahawks, and in doing so the Falcons got the first playoff win for Smith, Matt Ryan and many of the Falcons that have joined the team since 2008, including Tony Gonzalez. The win for Gonzalez, a future Hall of Famer, was especially sweet because after 16 seasons in the NFL, he'd never won a playoff game.
Gonzalez, who returned to the Falcons this season and has repeatedly said 2012 is very likely his final season, has become a bit of a rallying centerpiece for the Falcons squad. Although many have never won a playoff game inside the locker room, the Falcons want to send Gonzalez off into retirement with a Super Bowl, a run that began on Sunday with the win. The first playoff win of his historic career moved Gonzalez to tears. After the game he explained that as he watched Bryant's 49-yard field goal sail between the goal posts, he fell to the ground and began crying.
In Gonzalez' words: "I was on the ground sobbing like a baby."
The emotional comeback was needed because the Falcons lost a 20-point lead in the second half. As the game slipped away from them, some of the concerns began to creep into the minds of some players concerning their ability to come from behind once again.
"I thought it was over. I've played 16 years and I thought 'here we go again,' especially with that big old lead, I guess it's just not meant to be," Gonzalez said. "We believed and we were able to make the plays when it counted. Even Matt Bryant. He was over there on the sideline saying 'We've been here before, let's go do it.' We put it in position to go out and make that play and we do it. That's great."
For Ryan, the first playoff victory in four tries exemplifies just how difficult winning postseason games in the NFL is. A player with a long and distinguished career like Gonzalez can certainly attest to that and Ryan, in his fifth season, learned on Sunday no lead is safe and every win is worth its weight in season-long preparation.
"I think the one thing that I've learned in my five years, and specifically in the postseason, is that it's hard," Ryan said. "I mean, it is difficult to do. We knew coming into it this week that it was going to take 60 minutes of our best football to come out with a win and that's kind of the way the game shook out today. I thought that collectively as a team and as a coaching, nobody flinched. We just kept battling, kept doing what we do and that's just kind of been the makeup of our team this season."
It's fitting that Gonzalez made the final play on offense to move the Falcons into position for the field goal. After a 34-yard return by Jacquizz Rodgers and a 22-yard reception from Harry Douglas, Gonzalez grabbed a 19-yard pass with Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas all over him to put the Falcons in range with 13 seconds to go.
After catching more than 1,200 passes on his career, his most recent catch is the most important of his life.
"That's probably the best catch I've ever had even though it was probably one of the easiest too because he put it right in my chest," Gonzalez said. "It's the most important catch I've ever had in my life and I'll never forget it. It was wonderful."
Getting the monkey off their back is one thing and that's certainly been a goal for the Falcons this season, but they've always said they had bigger goals than just getting a playoff win this year. After Sunday's win, that mission continues.
"Just because we got this victory, this isn't it," Gonzalez said. "I said from the beginning our goal is to get to the Super Bowl and win. This is one step closer for us and I'm happy for us."