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Gonzalez eager for chance at first playoff win
Falcons TE has appeared in playoffs three times in 14 seasons
Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (88) reacts after catching a touchdown pass as Carolina Panthers safety Sherrod Martin (23) walks away in the first half on Jan. 2 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. - photo by Dave Martin

FLOWERY BRANCH — Tony Gonzalez looks at the picture hanging in his locker, an erratic maze of colors resembling nothing in particular, scribbled out in crayon by his young daughter.

"Isn't that great?" he says proudly.

You know what else is great? Playing the 14th season of a stellar career with the NFC's top-seeded Atlanta Falcons, who have this weekend off and won't have to play another game away from the Georgia Dome unless they make it to the Super Bowl.

For a guy who's been to playoffs only three times — and never won a postseason game, not even one — Gonzalez is almost giddy with anticipation.

"It's like a little kid and Christmas is next week," he said Thursday. "You start anticipating what you're going to get, what can happen, because you don't know what's going to happen. I guess you take the same approach as a little kid. You try to keep your mind busy."

For Gonzalez, that means sticking to the same routine that got him to the league in the first place and kept him here all these years.

But there's no denying that Gonzalez's quest to win not just a playoff game, but a Super Bowl title before he takes his place in Canton, is one of the major subplots for the Falcons heading into the postseason.

"We know playoff wins are not guaranteed," running back Michael Turner said. "Some guys go through their whole career and, no matter who great they are, never win a championship. We want to make sure Tony goes out with a ring on his finger."

This is why Gonzalez left the Kansas City Chiefs after a dozen years. He knew his career was winding down and wanted one more shot at a ring. He viewed Atlanta as a franchise on the rise, the sort of team that might get over the hump with a tight end such as himself bolstering the offense.

It didn't work out in 2009, when the team's playoff hopes were ruined by injuries to Turner and quarterback Matt Ryan.

But Gonzalez hit the jackpot this season, catching 70 passes for 656 yards and six touchdowns on a team that went 13-3, won just the fourth division title in franchise history and locked up home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

"We've got what we've earned," he said. "That's the No. 1 seed and the bye week. That's great. It's good to get the team healthy and all that good stuff. At the same time, you want to make sure it carries over to the game. We've got to keep doing what we've been doing. It's all even. It's all zero-and-zero at this point. We've earned enough to get to the tournament now and get a great seed. But we've got to make sure we take care of business."

Gonzalez played on a 13-win team his very first season with the Chiefs, good enough for a division title and a first-round bye. But Kansas City lost in the division round to the John Elway and the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.

It would be six long years before Gonzalez and the Chiefs got another shot at the playoffs. In 2003, Kansas City again won its division with a 13-3 record, again earned a week off before its first game. Again, they were done in by a superb quarterback, losing 38-31 to the Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.

Gonzalez would make the playoffs one final time during his tenure in Kansas City, getting in as a wild card in 2006. It was yet another one-and-done courtesy of Manning and the Colts, who went on to claim the Super Bowl title.

"You don't get too many chances to be in the position we've put ourselves in," said Roddy White, the Falcons' star receiver.

"When you do, you've got to take advantage of it. We're going to go out there and try to do whatever it takes to get (Gonzalez) what he needs. He wants to win the big one real bad. We all want to win it real bad."

Like Gonzalez, Ryan made the playoffs as a rookie, back in 2008. Those Falcons were eliminated in their first game, too. In that respect, the young quarterback and the aging tight end have a lot in common.

"That's one of the reasons Tony has been so great," Ryan said. "It's never been about him. He's not tried to make it about him. It's about us. One of the things you find, whether you're in year 13 or 14 like Tony or year three like myself, you don't know at what point in your career you're going to be in a certain position. You don't know how many opportunities you're going to have. The biggest thing is to take full advantage of it."

Gonzalez has conceded that he might consider retirement if the Falcons win it all. If nothing else, he doesn't plan on playing more than one more season if the NFL goes to an 18-game schedule, which he calls "completely stupid."

"It makes no sense from a fans' point of view, from a players' point of view," Gonzalez said. "They know it, we know it, everybody knows it. If they do it, it's obviously just for money."

His teammates don't want him to go, even if they're all celebrating after that final game of the season in Dallas.

Said Turner with a big grin: "I told him, 'If we win it, you've got to defend it."'

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