Moments after Matt Bryant kicked a 49-yard field goal to lift the Atlanta Falcons to their first playoff victory in nine years, tight end Tony Gonzalez was on the Georgia Dome turf, crying.
“Like a little baby,” Gonzalez, 36, told reporters in the locker room after yesterday’s 30-28 win against Seattle. “What a roller-coaster of emotions. I’ve never cried after a game.”
The win was the first in the National Football League postseason for Gonzalez, who said he is “95 percent sure” he’ll retire after this season. It was also the first playoff win for fifth-year quarterback Matt Ryan, who has lost postseason games in each of the past three seasons.
“Our goal isn’t to win one playoff game and stop answering that question,” Ryan, who passed for 250 yards and three touchdowns, said in a news conference. “Our goal is still in front of us and we have two more games to go.”
Atlanta’s success sets up a home meeting with the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 20 in the National Football Conference championship game. The same day, the New England Patriots will host the Baltimore Ravens in the American Football Conference championship game, with the victors advancing to the Feb. 3 Super Bowl in New Orleans. The Patriots yesterday beat the Houston Texans 41-28.
The Las Vegas Hotel’s Super Book lists the 49ers as a 3 1/2-point favorite to win at the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons -- who last reached this stage after the 2004 season, when they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles -- have won their past four games against San Francisco, which beat the Green Bay Packers 45-31 on Jan. 12.
Atlanta also defeated the 49ers 20-18 in the only postseason meeting between the teams, after the 1997 season, before going on to lose 34-19 to the Denver Broncos in their only visit to the Super Bowl.
To secure yesterday’s win, Ryan rallied the Falcons with 31 seconds remaining after the Seahawks fought back from 20-0 down midway through the third quarter to take a 28-27 lead. Atlanta never trailed until Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch drove in for a touchdown from two yards.
“I thought it was over,” said Gonzalez, a 13-time Pro Bowl selection who holds the NFL record for a tight end with 103 career touchdowns. “I’ve been here for 16 years and this was how I was going to go out. I was thinking, ’I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.’”
Gonzalez and Ryan then connected on a 19-yard pass play, which the tight end called the “easiest” and “most important” catch of his life. The play, which came after Ryan converted a 22-yard pass to Harry Douglas, set up Bryant’s kick with eight seconds remaining.
Ryan, Gonzalez and the Falcons are used to late-game heroics. Since taking over as the starting quarterback in 2008, Ryan has guided Atlanta to 15 fourth-quarter comeback victories and 22 game-winning drives, including six this season. Ryan said that allowed him to remain calm as the clock ticked down.
“Your past experiences kind of harden you and make you a little tougher in those situations,” he said. “The one thing I’ve learned in my five years, specifically in the postseason, is that it’s hard.”
Ryan said he didn’t deliver a “fire and brimstone speech,” which center Todd McClure said helped the team remain focused on the final drive.
“He just came in the huddle and said ’we’ve been here before,’” McClure said.
The result relieved pressure on the Falcons, the only team in the NFC with five consecutive winning seasons, after playoff losses to the New York Giants last year, the Packers in 2011 and the Arizona Cardinals in 2008, McClure said.
“We had a big chip on our shoulders and wanted to prove that we could do it,” he said. “I think we proved that.”
Asked if he ever doubted the outcome, McClure smiled and let out a light laugh.
“Yeah, I’m human,” he said. “There’s 30-something seconds left, we’ve got to move the ball down the field. Yeah, I did. It looked bleak at times, but we pulled through.”