By Simon Evans
(Reuters) - Two years ago, a dejected Tony Gonzalez stood on the sidelines as yet another playoff game ended in defeat for the veteran tight end and his Atlanta Falcons.
The Green Bay Packers had come into the Georgia Dome and routed the Falcons 48-21, and Gonzalez, a record setter in most categories a tight end is measured by, was still looking for his first career playoff win.
The Californian was injured in the third quarter and while he got taped up and returned to the bench, the Falcons' chances fizzled out. As Gonzalez limped off the field, his body language led to inevitable speculation over his NFL future.
Gonzalez, whose career playoff record dropped to 0-5 after last year's first-round loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants, said in his gloomy interview after the Packers game that retirement was a possibility.
But it proved too soon for the top level college basketball and football player to give up on his goal of winning, if not a Super Bowl, a playoff game.
Last Sunday, on that same sideline, Gonzalez's emotions told another story as he fell to the ground in tears following Matt Bryant's 49-yard field goal in the final seconds that earned Atlanta a dramatic win over Seattle.
"I was on the ground, sobbing like a baby," said Gonzalez.
After 16 seasons in the NFL, the future Hall of Famer finally had a playoff victory, putting him one win away from his first appearance in the Super Bowl in what he says is likely to be his final season.
Sunday's NFC Championship game with the San Francisco 49ers now stands between the 36-year-old and a trip to New Orleans for the National Football League's championship game. Despite his age and his self-defined '95 percent' chance of retiring this year, Gonzalez remains central to top-seeded Atlanta's offense.
On the decisive final drive of last week's game, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan made Gonzalez his target for the 19-yard pass that would set up the game-winning field goal.
"It is the most important catch I've ever had in my life and I'll never forget it. It was wonderful," said Gonzalez, who owns the NFL record for career receptions by a tight end.
Ryan, as usual, had no hesitation turning to Gonzalez, who has surpassed 1,200 receptions in his career, and speaking this week the quarterback said he knew exactly what to expect from his team mate.
"He's a consummate professional," said Ryan. "He shows up every week, he handles his business; he's fun to be around, he's got a great personality in the locker room and he's just been himself this week."
Gonzalez spent the early parts of his career honing his catching skills, for hour after hour, with the help of a machine that fires out balls for receivers.
The drills paid off handsomely but there is no machine that can help collate the experience and football intelligence that allows Gonzalez to get open when it matters most and take advantage of weaknesses in opposing defenses.
Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon compares having Gonzalez to being able to get the inside advantage in a video game.
"He definitely has the cheat code," said Weatherspoon. "That basically means that he has the experience and definitely has the playmaking ability to go out there and make plays on anybody."
It would have been cruel if a player of Gonzalez's talent and commitment, the NFL record holder for receiving yards (14,268) and touchdowns (103) for a tight end, would have bowed out without even a shot at the Super Bowl.
Ryan believes there remains a chance that a glory-filled end to the season could lead Gonzalez to delay his retirement plans once again.
"I talk to him about that all the time. He says he's 95 percent sure and I keep telling him that I'm convinced of the other five percent," said Ryan.
"I think he can still play. Whatever he chooses to do, it's been an unbelievable run for him."
(Reporting By Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue)