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Column: Tears of joy as Gonzalez finally wins one

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Column: Tears of joy as Gonzalez finally wins one

The old pro was on the sideline, resigned to the fact that this would turn out like so many games of the past. In the 16 years Tony Gonzalez has played tight end in the NFL, so many seasons ended early that he couldn't expect this one to be any different.

If football is a cruel game, it had been even crueler to Gonzalez. No matter what he did, no matter how well he played, the end result always seemed to be the same.

He might be the greatest tight end in the history of the game. But he's never played in a Super Bowl, never even gotten to a conference championship game.

Incredibly, he had never been on a winning playoff team, something that was on his mind as Marshawn Lynch scored on a 2-yard run with 31 seconds left to put the Seattle Seahawks on the verge of a stunning comeback win against the Atlanta Falcons.

Even worse was the thought that this game would almost surely be his last. Gonzalez isn't doing a Ray Lewis retirement tour, but he gave every indication all season long that he would be doing something different on Sundays next year.

``I guess this is it,'' Gonzalez thought as he stood watching the final seconds. ``Going out with a heartbreaking loss.''

Not just yet he isn't. Not after collecting himself enough to run a perfect route and make the catch that set up a last-second winning field goal by Matt Bryant to give the Falcons a 30-28 win.

Instead of moving out, he's moving on. The Falcons are a game away from the Super Bowl, and if Lewis can fire up the Baltimore Ravens with his pending departure, maybe the Falcons can take some inspiration from a veteran so overcome by what happened that he cried.

``I'm just so happy right now I can't explain it,'' Gonzalez said. ``This is playoff football at its best.''

Interesting that Gonzalez could even recognize it. For years he played on teams in Kansas City that made the playoffs only occasionally and once there never won a game. Then he hooked up with the Falcons, only to be on the losing end of playoff games the last two seasons, neither of which he played particularly well.

He began making up for all that on Sunday by balancing precariously in the back of the end zone in the first quarter for the first Atlanta touchdown of the day. But it was the 19-yard catch up the middle when nothing but a catch would save the Falcons with 14 seconds left that might end up being the defining moment of his brilliant career.

No heartbreaker this time. The big guy finally had a big win.

``Probably the best catch I've ever had, even though it was one of the easiest,'' Gonzalez said. ``Matt put it on my chest. It's the most important catch I've had in my life. I'll never forget it.''

The Seahawks probably won't either. They had to figure the Falcons were going to the man quarterback Matt Ryan calls Mr. Reliable when they needed it the most, yet they could do little against a perfectly run route that gave Ryan just the window he needed to squeeze a throw in.

Neither will Atlanta fans, who, like Gonzalez, still had some agonizing moments waiting to see if Bryant could hit the 49-yarder for the win. While Ryan had a bad angle to watch the kick and listened to the crowd to see what happened, Gonzalez was sprawled on the turf, in tears as the emotions spilled out as the kick split the uprights.

``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.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org orhttp://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale welcomes second chance at role

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Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale welcomes second chance at role

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Don Martindale wondered if he would ever get a second chance to be an NFL defensive coordinator after his one-and-done disaster with the Denver Broncos in 2010.

The Broncos went 4-12 that season and gave up more points (29.4 per game) and yards (390.8) than any team in the league. Those miserable numbers, not surprisingly, cost Martindale his job.

He latched on with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012 as linebackers coach. After working diligently with several stars, including Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Zachary Orr and C.J. Mosley, the 54-year-old Martindale last week was promoted to defensive coordinator.

RELATED: WHO WERE THE RAVENS' MVP'S IN 2017?

To say he's pleased to be in charge of an NFL defense again would be a profound understatement.

"Without a doubt," Martindale said Thursday. "My family knows it. Everybody knows it. My players know it. I can't wait."

His performance in Denver eight years ago is hardly worth putting on a resume, but Martindale believes it was a worthwhile experience.

"Even though the stats were what they were, I was really proud with how we played," he said. "I'm glad I went through that process because I think that makes me a better coach today. It's like I tell my guys: You either win or you learn."

Martindale's new job with the Ravens carries the responsibility of overseeing a unit that has long been among the best in the NFL, thriving under notable leaders such as Marvin Lewis, Rex Ryan, Chuck Pagano and Dean Pees, who retired on Jan. 1.

"I've been preparing for this job all my life," Martindale said. "It's very humbling, but I understand the pressure and I look forward to the challenge."

Martindale takes over a defense that this season ranked 12th in net yards allowed, first in takeaways (34) and sixth in fewest points allowed (18.9). He has no plans to revamp the unit or change the philosophy, especially since head coach John Harbaugh stressed the need to retain continuity before launching his search for Pees' replacement.

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Martindale will, however, put his own stamp on the unit.

"I think personality-wise, and just calls, there's going to be some things that are the same. And then there are going to be sometimes where I'm going to pressure more," Martindale said. "I just think I have a more aggressive personality in calling the game. Sometimes, too aggressive. That's some of the things I've learned from the past."

His most daunting task will be finding a way to make the defense to come up big late in the game. In 2016, a fourth-quarter collapse in Pittsburgh cost Baltimore a playoff berth. This season, a fourth-down touchdown pass in the final minute by Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton bounced the Ravens from the postseason chase.

"Our mantra has always been to finish," Martindale said. "We're close. Obviously, the last two years, it's been the last play that's knocked us out of it. We are going to work diligently -- all of us -- with our package and situational football.

"That's going to be the next step, I think, that will skyrocket us. That's the big thing that I see. We were really good. Let's make it great."

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Offensive, defensive and rookie of the year awards for Ravens' 2017 season

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USA Today Sports

Offensive, defensive and rookie of the year awards for Ravens' 2017 season

The Ravens' season had it's ups and down, but out of it came some bright spots.

The defense continued to prove dominate and the offense found its groove during the second half of the season, but who stood out the most?

Offensive MVP: RB Alex Collins

Collins was a late preseason pickup after being cut by the Seattle Seahawks and Ravens fans are grateful they let him go. After new acquisition Danny Woodhead injured his hamstring on the first drive in Week 1 and Terrance West injured his calf Week 5 in Oakland, Allen emerged as a saving grace. He finished the season with 973 yards, six touchdowns and 212 attempts averaging 4.6 yards-per-carry. His longest rushing attempt was 50-yards against the Steelers in Week 4, and then in Week 14, rushed 120-yards on their defense. 

RELATED: RAVENS' 2018 NFL MOCK DRAFT ROUNDUP

Defensive MVP: OLB Terrell Suggs

This one was a toss up between Suggs and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, but considering the level at which Sizzle is playing at in his 15th season, his 2017 performance is MVP worthy.

The 35-year old finished the season with 49 combined tackles, 12 assist, 11 sacks and four forced fumbles. Suggs ranks 11th in the league in sacks and was voted to his seventh Pro Bowl, something that should be expected from the leader of a defense that finished the regular season ranked sixth in points allowed. During the Ravens' Week 12 matchup, Suggs proved he doesn't age when he strip sacked Texans QB Tom Savage with 4:44 remaining in the fourth, shifting the momentum back to the Ravens who were clinging on to a 23-16 win. He's suffered two Achilles tears and a torn bicep over the last 5.5 seasons but has remained Hall of Fame worthy. As of right now, T-Sizzle has no plans of retiring. 

RELATED: FIVE OFFSEASON QUESTIONS RAVENS MUST ANSWER

Rookie of the Year: CB Marlon Humphrey

The Ravens' 2017 first-round pick stepped up to the plate when starting CB Jimmy Smith's season was over after suffering a torn Achilles in Week 13. The rookie out of Alabama finished the season with 34 combined tackles, four assists and two interceptions. Pro Football Focus graded Humphrey the fifth-best cover corner in the league. QBs only had a 53.5 rating when they threw in his direction. PFF also gave Humphrey a 82.7 rookie rating. 

Humphrey will continue to prove his worth during the 2018 season if Jimmy Smith is still recovering come Week 1.

RELATED: IMPORTANT 2018 OFFSEASON DATES

Special Teams MVP: P Sam Koch

Koch is in his 12th season with the Ravens and he's continuing to prove how efficient that leg of his is. He had a season long of 67-yards and placed 40 of 84 punts inside the 20-yard line. Koch's accuracy earned him AFC special teams player of the week not once, but twice this season. The first came in Week 12 against the Houston Texans when he not only placed five punts inside the 20-yard line, but also faked a punt and threw a 22-yard pass to Chris Moore for a first down. The second honor came in Week 15 against the Cleveland Browns after placing four punts inside the 20-yard line, three of them inside the five. While neither Koch or kicker Justin Tucker were named to the Pro Bowl, Ravens fans never break a sweat when the game is in their hands, or should we say, legs.