by Ryan Isley
After 17 weeks of the regular season and eight playoff games, the NFL is down to their last four teams: the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens in the AFC and the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers in the NFC.
While Matt wrote for MTAF earlier this week that there isn’t a team left to root for, picking a team out of those four was actually pretty simple for me.
I can’t root for San Francisco or Baltimore because I just cannot stand to watch the Harbaugh brothers and their act any longer than we have to this season. Watching them on the sidelines continually talking to officials and opposing players has just gotten old.
While some are finding it impossible to root for Baltimore because of Ray Lewis – and I understand the reasons – I am not in that group. Personally, I am a fan of Ray Lewis and feel that he is one of the best players in my lifetime.
Rooting for the Patriots would just seem dirty – and how fun would it be to see Bill Belichick and Tom Brady make it to another Super Bowl only to lose again?
That leaves me with the Atlanta Falcons. And this was easy for a couple of reasons, neither of which revolves around their two-time Pro Bowl running back looking like he should be playing right guard. But I digress.
First of all, I like Matt Ryan. With a record of 56-24 and two seasons of 13-3, Ryan has consistently been one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL since he entered in 2008. 2012 was a career season for Ryan, as he set new career highs in completion percentage (68.6%), passing yards (4,719), passing touchdowns (32) and quarterback rating (99.1).
The one knock on Ryan has been that he just couldn’t get over the hump in the postseason because he had lost the first three playoff games in his career. That may have changed this past weekend when the Falcons beat the Seattle Seahawks to advance to the NFC Championship Game.
By leading the Falcons into field goal range for a Matt Bryant game-winning kick after the Seahawks had taken the lead, Ryan conducted his league-leading sixt game-winning drive in the fourth quarter this season.
Maybe that win over the Seahawks will be exactly what Ryan needed to start compiling an impressive postseason resume. Remember – Eli Manning lost his first two career playoff games before winning eight of his last nine, including two Super Bowls.
While I like Ryan and want to see him succeed, the number one reason I want to see the Falcons win the Super Bowl is because of Tony Gonzalez.
Gonzalez is arguably the greatest tight end to ever play in the NFL and has said that this would be his swan song, as he will hang up the cleats after the season and wait the five years before he is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
With his 1,242 career catches, Gonzalez sits second in receptions in NFL history. That isn’t second all-time for tight ends – that is second all-time for ALL PLAYERS. He trails only Jerry Rice, who was voted as the best player in the history of the NFL by the NFL Network in 2010. His 103 receiving touchdowns are the most all-time by a tight end and ranks sixth among all players. He is also seventh all-time in receiving yards and his 14,268 yards leads all tight ends by over 4,000 yards.
Unlike a number of players who leave the game after having down seasons to end their career, Gonzalez is still playing at as high of a level as any tight end in the NFL. In 2012, he was second only to Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys in receptions (110 to 93) and was third among tight ends in receiving yards (930) behind Witten (1,039) and Jimmy Graham (982) of the New Orleans Saints. He also had eight touchdown catches, which was tied for fourth among tight ends. Because of his play this season, Gonzalez was voted to the Pro Bowl for the 13th time in the last 14 seasons.
Not bad for a 36-year-old player on the verge of retirement.
Despite all of those numbers, the most amazing stat about Gonzalez might be that he entered the 2012 season – the 16th of his career – never having won a playoff game. He was 0-3 with the Kansas City Chiefs and 0-2 with the Falcons.
And for a few moments against Seattle, it looked like he was going to finish his career winless in the postseason. When Marshawn Lynch scored from two yards out in the final minute of the fourth quarter, the Falcons trailed 28-27 after leading the game 20-0 at halftime and 27-7 entering the fourth quarter.
With 25 seconds left and the ball at the Falcons 28-yard-line, Ryan hit Harry Douglass with a 22-yard pass to start the drive and give the Falcons hope with the ball at midfield.
Then Ryan and Gonzalez stepped up with the season – and Gonzalez’s career – in the balance. Ryan hit Gonzalez over the middle for what should have been a 14-yard gain, but the future Hall of Famer slipped a tackle and then drug another defender to turn it into a 19-yard gain which moved the field goal attempt from what would have been 53 yards to a 49-yard attempt and Bryant split the uprights. It was just another defining play in a great career for Gonzalez, who earlier in the game had a highlight reel catch for a touchdown in the back of the endzone. Well it would have been a highlight for almost anyone else, but for Gonzalez, it has become routine.
Not only is Gonzalez a great player, but he is also a consummate professional by all accounts. You never read anything negative about Gonzalez from anyone – a rare feat in today’s world of sports.
So while other people are busy rooting against players like Ray Lewis or Tom Brady for their own reasons, I will spend this weekend rooting for players like Matt Ryan and Tony Gonzalez.
But mainly for Gonzalez – a great player who has always done it the right way. Those players are so few and far between anymore.
Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org