Gonzalez eager for 1st playoff win
Over the course of a stellar 14-year career that undoubtedly will land him a spot in Canton, Tony Gonzalez has been to the postseason only three times. And he's never won a playoff game. Not even one.
This might be his best — and final chance — to remove that blemish from his record.
The 34-year-old doesn't even bother trying to conceal his excitement as the Atlanta Falcons head into the playoffs as the NFC's top seed, earning a bye this weekend and nothing but home games all the way to the Super Bowl. Like a child anticipating a visit from Santa, he says it feels like Christmas all over again as he waits to see what this postseason will bring.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons hope their home-field advantage in the playoffs will make up for a shortage of players who have won in the postseason.
The Falcons have no players who have appeared in a Super Bowl. Starting with veterans Tony Gonzalez and Mike Peterson, the roster is filled with players starved for playoff success.
Only three — center Todd McClure and receivers Brian Finneran and Michael Jenkins — were with the team for Atlanta's last playoff win in 2004.
The Falcons, who have a bye this weekend, are counting on their strong home record and the added experience of quarterback Matt Ryan and other key players who remain from the 2008 team that lost its playoff opener at Arizona.
"I think the playoff experience that we had two years ago will be beneficial for our football team," said coach Mike Smith, who was a rookie coach in 2008. "Our guys had an opportunity to experience it even though we didn't get the outcome we wanted. I think it was a learning experience for us all, not only the players but the coaching staff."
The Falcons (13-3) earned the bye by winning the NFC South with the conference's best record. They will play on Jan. 15 against the Saints, Seahawks or Packers. The winner advances to the NFC championship game.
Atlanta's only other division titles came in 1980, 1998 and 2004. The team is the No. 1 seed for the first time since 1980.
The Falcons can advance to the Super Bowl with two wins at the Georgia Dome, where they are 20-2 in games started by Ryan over the last three years.
All that recent home success came in the regular season. The Falcons haven't had a home playoff game since beating the Rams in the divisional playoffs after the 2004 season. Atlanta lost at Philadelphia in the NFC title game.
In addition to the three holdovers from the 2004 Falcons roster, the list of Atlanta players who have won in the playoffs is short: running back Michael Turner (San Diego), cornerback Brian Williams (Minnesota, Jacksonville), defensive end John Abraham (New York Jets) and safety Erik Coleman (Jets).
The Falcons' list of players still seeking their first playoff win includes two of the team's most experienced veterans, Gonzalez and Peterson.
This could be the last chance for a playoff win for Gonzalez, who has more catches than any tight end in NFL history, and Peterson, still a productive linebacker.
Gonzalez, 34, lost in each of his three playoff games with Kansas City. Peterson, 34, was 0-for-4 in the playoffs with Indianapolis and Jacksonville. He missed the Jaguars' 2007 playoffs with an injury.
"I'm just so happy right now," Peterson said. "I've been at this thing for 12 years now and I have never had a feeling like I do right now. I'm just trying to take advantage of it and soak it all in."
Gonzalez hoped for this playoff opportunity when he was traded from the Chiefs to the Falcons before the 2009 season.
"This is exactly what I envisioned," said Gonzalez, in his 14th NFL season. "Now that it's here, it's great."
At the time of the trade, Gonzalez said he was optimistic that Atlanta's offense, which features Ryan, White and Turner, could lead the team to the playoffs.
Ryan, White, Turner, Gonzalez and fullback Ovie Mughelli made the Pro Bowl.
Gonzalez said he will make sure his younger teammates realize that playoff chances are rare, especially as a No. 1 seed.
"Just because you're 13-3 doesn't mean much," he said. "We still have to take care of business."
Ryan was only 13 when the Falcons lost to Denver in their only Super Bowl appearance following the 1998 season. He was a rookie when the host Cardinals beat the Falcons 30-24.
Ryan now is bolstered by the experience gained in his three seasons, including his first Pro Bowl nod this season, as he prepares for his second try for a playoff win.
"Completely different," Ryan said when asked to compare the two playoff opportunities. "At this point I have a better idea of what to expect heading into it because it is different. There are things going on that are different than in the regular season. ... The atmosphere is really different."
Ryan had three turnovers, including a fumble returned for a touchdown, and was sacked for a safety in his 2008 playoff debut.
Ryan said he understands it's important to take advantage of the home playoff games.
"The opportunity doesn't come around that often," he said. "Trying to make the most of it, I think all of us will have that in the back of our minds."