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Gonzales having fun with Falcons
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FLOWERY BRANCH — Tony Gonzalez shows no signs of slowing down as one of the NFL's career-best tight ends.

What's better, Gonzalez is having the time of his life.

The Atlanta Falcons are winning, their offense seems good enough to match the NFL's best, and third-year quarterback Matt Ryan is taking charge.

With no postseason victories on a 14-year resume that includes 10 Pro Bowl selections, Gonzalez, 34, is energized in his belief that the Falcons are skilled enough to win the Super Bowl.

"I love it. It's Matt's team," Gonzalez said Wednesday. "He's the face of this franchise. He's the future of this franchise. He's going to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league when it's all said and done."

Though the Falcons (2-1) are coming off an overtime victory last week at New Orleans, Gonzalez believes the team's collective hunger won't allow an emotional drop-off Sunday against San Francisco (0-3).

Beating the Super Bowl champion Saints boosted Atlanta's confidence to a level Gonzalez hasn't seen since his draft-week trade from Kansas City last year.

He likes what he sees, hears and feels.

"There's not going to be any letup," he said. "If anything, we need to step on the gas a little bit more if we want to get to where we want to go."

In his first season with the Falcons, Gonzalez met his regularly high statistical standards, but Atlanta finished at 9-7, and he missed the playoffs for the 10th time in 13 years.

There were some spectacular plays between Gonzalez and Ryan in 2009, most notably a 6-yard winning touchdown pass at the New York Jets in Week 15.

But their work together last week seemed more meaningful.

To win the NFC South, the Falcons needed the affirmation of a victory over New Orleans, and it was Gonzalez's work with Ryan — eight catches for 110 yards and a touchdown — that helped make it possible.

They hooked up for a 13-yard touchdown to force a 7-7 tie in the first quarter on a drive that included two Gonzalez catches that covered 48 yards. The pair's performance turned more dramatic in the second quarter with a 19-play drive that lasted 10 minutes, 39 seconds and ended with Michael Turner's touchdown run.

On a third-and-four from the Atlanta 45, Ryan had no receivers open, and his protection collapsed on the left side as Saints defensive end Will Smith pursued hard to his back side. Scrambling to his right, Ryan saw Gonzalez was breaking off his route and offering a sideline target.

"That's kind of where his instincts take over, and he knows to stop and come back," Ryan said. "I was on the same page with him, threw it low, and he was able to go down and make the catch."

Then, on fourth-and-two at the New Orleans 11, Ryan completed a 9-yard pass over the middle to Gonzalez, who exploited a small hole in the coverage and adjusted to a wobbly ball that Smith tipped near the line of scrimmage.

"I have to throw it to that spot, and (Smith) just made a good play," Ryan said. "Tony was able to change his eyes, be patient and know that the ball's going to slow up, and he still makes a great catch."

Gonzalez was thrilled that Ryan, through the 27-24 win, rallied his teammates on the field and challenged them in the huddle and on the sideline. It marked the first time since the Falcons drafted him No. 3 overall in 2008 that Ryan was so emotional in a single game.

"That's having the confidence enough to say, 'Hey, this what I want out of all of you guys,' and guys respect him enough to say, 'OK, we're going to do this for you,'" Gonzalez said. "You've got to have that from your quarterback. Any successful team around the league, you look at it, and the good quarterbacks are like that. They're the team leaders. They're the vocal guys. Guys who get people in the right place."

Before each game, Gonzalez doesn't know if opponents will try to double-cover him or Roddy White, a three-time Pro Bowl receiver whose 25 catches rank second in the NFL. San Francisco, which has allowed a league-high 29 points per game, is no exception.

Last week was a matchup delight for Gonzalez, whose 1,011 catches rank seventh on the NFL career receiving list. The Saints chose to use backside help in double-covering White. That left the 6-foot-5, 247-pound Gonzalez lining up against slower linebackers and smaller safeties.

"If I get single coverage, I should be able to win nine times out of 10," Gonzalez said. "Sometimes I might lose that battle, but I think anybody worth his salt, if you get that man-to-man coverage like that, you should be able to exploit it and do some damage."

NOTES: Rookie OLB Sean Weatherspoon missed practice Wednesday with an ankle injury. ... WR Michael Jenkins (shoulder) and S Erik Coleman (knee) were limited in their participation.

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