For the first time in his career, Tony Gonzalez emerged from a playoff game as a winner.
Atlanta survived a furious comeback from the Seahawks. After jumping out to a 27-7 lead, the Seahawks came roaring back, taking a 28-27 lead with just 31 seconds remaining.
When Seattle took its first lead of the game, when Atlanta looked like it had choked again, Gonzalez's mind wandered on the sidelines -- and the future Hall of Fame tight end wondered if it was ever meant to be.
"You tell yourself, 'Hey, I guess it just wasn't meant to be,' and try to look at the spiritual side of things, and try to have acceptance," he said. "You start trying to rationalize: Maybe it's just not gonna happen. I thought, '27-7 and we blew it?'"
It was, however, meant to be for Gonzalez and the Falcons, at least on Sunday, and Gonzalez played a major role in Atlanta clawing back to victory.
After Matt Ryan found Harry Douglas for a 22-yard gain at midfield, Ryan found Gonzalez for a critical 19-yard reception, putting the ball squarely in field goal range at the 31-yard line for the Falcons.
Gonzalez spent his first 12 professional seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, before Atlanta acquired him before the 2009 season.
While with the Chiefs, Gonzalez played in three playoff games -- and the Chiefs went 0-3. In each loss, the Chiefs were bested by a Hall of Fame quarterback, as Kansas City lost to Denver in 1997 (John Elway), and Indianapolis in 2003 and 2006 (Peyton Manning).
Atlanta missed the playoffs in 2009, but the Falcons qualified in 2010 and 2011. In each season, the Falcons were sent home by the eventual Super Bowl champions, leaving Gonzalez with an 0-5 record in his playoff career.
In his previous five playoff games, Gonzalez had never hauled in more than four passes, and never amassed more than 55 receiving yards.
On Sunday, Gonzalez set a playoff career-high, catching six passes for 51 yards and a touchdown -- Gonzalez's first postseason touchdown in over six years.
Though his confidence was shaken after Marshawn Lynch's touchdown gave Seattle the lead, Gonzalez didn't quit. Not after coming this far in his career, and not after coming this close to beating the Seahawks.
"I thought, 'It's a long shot that we're gonna win this game,'" Gonzalez said in the parking lot. "But I knew there was a shot. I thought, 'It's a small chance. But we've got a chance.'"
Galvanized, Gonzalez gathered a group of offensive teammates (receivers Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas and running backs Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers) on the sidelines and told them, "We've been here before. We can get this done. Believe."
It took Atlanta just two plays to get into field goal range after Gonzalez's inspirational moment. Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant didn't let Gonzalez or his teammates down, converting a 49-yard field goal with just eight seconds left to play, lifting the Falcons to a 30-28 victory.
Gonzalez stated earlier this season that he's almost certain to retire after this season, despite playing at an elite level, catching 93 passes for 930 yards and eight touchdowns this season. For his career, Gonzalez has caught 1,242 passes for 14,268 yards and 103 touchdowns.
Needless to say, Gonzalez will go down as one of the very best tight ends in football history.
Still, one of the best players in NFL history came dangerously close to ending his 16-year career without a playoff win to his name, let alone a Super Bowl. It's not surprising that Gonzalez was relieved after the game.
"I just so wanted to win," he said softly. "The game was so tough. What an emotional roller coaster. There were so many highs and lows. And now that it's over, there's so much relief.
"It's so good to get that playoff monkey off your back."
Atlanta did win, in large part because of Gonzalez's contributions.
With the playoff monkey officially off his back, Gonzalez can try to get the Super Bowl monkey off his back on Sunday, as the Falcons are just one home win away from heading to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII.