FLOWERY BRANCH — Tony Gonzalez lets his mind drift at times. He sees himself standing on the field at the end of the Super Bowl, the confetti dropping all around, a championship finally his.
Then he snaps back into the moment.
"We're a long way from that right now," said Gonzalez, the Atlanta Falcons' tight end and surefire Hall of Famer. "I don't want to get caught up in that. I've got to get there first. We've got to get there. We've got a lot of work to do."
Gonzalez already had put together a 14-year career that's the envy of the Falcons' locker room. He's the first tight end in NFL history to reach 1,000 catches. He's just the 17th player to cross 12,000 yards receiving.
But there's one big thing missing: a playoff win.
This might be his best chance yet to rectify that omission. The Falcons (7-2) are leading the NFC and looking more and more like not just a playoff contender, but a Super Bowl candidate.
At times, Gonzalez sounds downright giddy.
"I'm like a little kid and it's getting close to Christmas," he said. "Hey, we've got a good thing here. But we can't look ahead."
While Atlanta has successfully navigated what appears to be the most difficult part of its schedule, Sunday's contest against the St. Louis Rams begins a stretch of four road games in five weeks.
Not surprisingly, Gonzalez is taking nothing for granted.
"People are calling me up saying, 'Y'all should get this win and then start getting ready for Green Bay next,'" he said. "I'm like, 'Nah, it's not like that.' We need to improve. Each game is an opportunity to see how good we can be and keep improving, to get where we want to go."
There's no doubt where Gonzalez wants to go.
When he walks that fine line between living in the present and visualizing what might happen in the future, he pictures what it would be like in Dallas on that first Sunday of February — not sitting in the stands, but being out on the field, playing for a title.
"I go to the Super Bowl every year," he said. "I see the hype around it, the parties, the people who are there, the media attention, all the stuff that comes along with it. It all seems like a side note to actually being out there, to actually getting that victory. That would be amazing."
"I picture the confetti dropping after the clock hits zero," Gonzalez went on. "I can see myself there. That's part of that visionary training that Tony Robbins and any of those self-help gurus will tell you. You kind of have to visualize yourself in the moment and hopefully it'll happen."
Hold on! Snap out of it!
Time to get back to reality.
"You've got to work for it, too," Gonzalez said, shifting direction like he might do to shed himself of a defender. "I'm trying to focus more on the work in here, enjoying the process. Right now, we're having a blast."
Gonzalez has a profound affect on his teammates, a 34-year-old guy who goes as hard every day as the guys on the practice squad fighting for a job.
"He's taught everybody that it takes a lot of hard work off the field to get where you want to go on the field," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "He just shows up every day, sticks to his routine and works extremely hard at what he does. That's certainly something I've taken notice of."
Gonzalez spent a dozen years with Kansas City, part of a revolutionary group of tight ends who helped transform that position from just another blocker to a true offensive weapon. The Chiefs made the playoffs three times while he was there, but each time they were one-and-done — twice losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion.
With Kansas City facing a major rebuilding job, both sides decided it was time for a change. Gonzalez wanted to finish his career with a playoff-caliber team. The Chiefs wanted a younger roster. A deal was arranged sending him to the Falcons for a relatively cheap second-round pick.
Unfortunately for Gonzalez, a team coming off an unexpected playoff appearance took a step back in 2009. Injuries to Ryan and leading rusher Michael Turner helped knock Atlanta out of playoff contention.
Naturally, Gonzalez wondered if he made the right decision.
"You wouldn't be human if you didn't," he said. "You kind of second-guess yourself once in a while. That's when you've really got to focus. Once those thoughts crossed my mind, I was not going to feel sorry for myself. I was not going to say, 'Wow, that's a bad decision.'"
It looks a lot better now, even though Gonzalez's numbers have dropped off a bit. He's on pace to make 73 catches — 10 fewer than a year ago — for 715 yards, which would be his lowest total since his second in the league, way back in 1998. That's OK. Gonzalez is still drawing lots of double coverage, which opens things up for star receiver Roddy White (70 catches, 934 yards, seven TDs).
"I'm a little frustrated with it at times," Gonzalez said. "At the same time, I know Roddy ... is having an unbelievable season. I prefer it that way. Let's keep feeding everybody else."
As long as Gonzalez is standing amid the confetti come February, he doesn't matter how many catches he makes — though White worries about a potential pitfall to winning a Super Bowl title.
"He might just retire on us," White said, breaking into a big smile. "That would be a bad thing."