"I've cried after a loss, but never a win," he said. "I thought it was over. Sixteen years. Six playoff games. I was like, 'here we go again.' Especially with that big lead. I thought it just wasn't meant to be."
That it was means the Falcons will play again next week against San Francisco with the winner going to the Super Bowl. It's the kind of thing Gonzalez could hardly imagine with the Chiefs; the kind of thing that up until now seemed just out of reach for the Falcons.
They'll be underdogs despite being at home, and they'll need to put this one behind them to be competitive against a 49er team that was at its best Saturday in a lopsided win over Green Bay. Odds are good they won't have a 20-point halftime lead like they did against the Seahawks, and a defense that couldn't seem to stop Russell Wilson in the second half will have to somehow find a way to contain Colin Kaepernick, who is even more dangerous while on the run.
Whatever happens, though, one thing is for sure: Gonzalez won't have to spend his retirement years explaining how he caught 103 touchdown passes in 238 regular season games, yet somehow couldn't find a way to help his team win when it mattered most.
"I can't tell you how happy I am for Tony Gonzalez personally," coach Mike Smith said. "He just did what he's done his entire career. He goes out and plays the game the way it's supposed to be played. He's a special football player and he's a special human being."
Gonzalez also has a feeling now that there might be something special about what is almost surely his last season.
"Just because we got this victory, this isn't it," Gonzalez said. "Our goals are still trying to get to the Super Bowl and winning it. So this is one step closer for us."
After 16 years, it might have been the biggest step of his career.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg