ATLANTA -- For 16 years, in this situation, the ball almost always would come to him. But on what probably was the last meaningful play of his storied NFL career, it didn't.
With the Falcons facing a fourth-and-4 from the 49ers' 10 with a little more than a minute left, everyone had to be thinking the pass would be heading toward tight end Tony Gonzalez. But the 49ers had him covered with cornerback Tarell Brown and safety Trenton Robinson over the top, and although Matt Ryan looked Gonzalez's way, the pass went in the direction of Roddy White. NaVorro Bowman broke it up, essentially giving the 49ers the 28-24 victory and a trip to the Super Bowl.
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"The defense kind of fooled us there," Gonzalez said. "It looked like I wasn't going to be open , but then it came open."
Early on, it didn't look as if the game would come down to one play like that, not after the Falcons took a 17-0 lead.
They were in a similar position the previous week in the divisional round. After taking a 20-0 lead over the Seahawks at home, they allowed Seattle to go ahead 28-27 late in the fourth quarter. But Ryan drove the Falcons in the final minute for a winning field goal.
"We had plenty of time and we felt confident that we could go out there and score a touchdown," Ryan said of trying for a second straight collapse-to-comeback.
The Falcons had confidence they could bounce back, in part because of the Seattle experience. But it turns out that game also inspired the 49ers. When they trailed 17-0, they spoke about their division rivals' near-success and tried to apply it to their own situation. "We feel like . . . a better team than Seattle," running back Frank Gore said, "and if they did it, we can do it."
For Gonzalez, who likely will wind up in the Hall of Fame, it was an emotional end to the season. He has said he is 95 percent certain he will retire.
"That's probably the last time I wear that uniform, or football pads and cleats," Gonzalez said. "I didn't want to take it off, to tell you the truth."