*Travel back, back, back with us to Dec. 20, 2009. The scene is the old Meadowlands stadium in its last year of life, filled half with fans and half with snow from an overnight nor'easter that dumped a foot of powder over the region. *
The home team is the Jets, still alive for the playoffs, quarterbacked by rookie Mark Sanchez. The visitors are the Falcons, a southern dome team already eliminated from the postseason, QB'd by a second-year man, Matt Ryan.
It looked like it might be a solid and satisfying win for the Green & White, but instead it's been a difficult day. Yet the Jets are clinging to a 7-3 lead and the win is within reach as Atlanta faces fourth-and-goal from the 6 with 1:42 to play.*
But then Tony Gonzalez also reaches, and his reach is longer. The veteran tight end, already in his 13th NFL season, snatches the win away in the end zone with the eventual game-winning TD reception.
Fast-forward to today. Jets head coach Rex Ryan is a lot slimmer than four years ago, but his mindset is still the same as it was that cold day when Matty Ice found Gonzo sitting in a bubble between about five Jets defenders for the winning TD pass and catch.
"That one was brutal because we had played a great game defensively against them," Ryan recalled at his news conference at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. "It was a clutch play, a fourth-down play, by a rookie quarterback who throws it in there to a great receiver.
"Sometimes you know it's coming, and he still gets it. ... Yeah, it's still pretty vivid in my mind."
The problem for opposing defenses is that Tony Gonzalez is now a 17-year veteran. And just like Dorian Gray, he never seems to age. Just last Sunday night, his artful catch-and-run for a 21-yard TD from Matt Ryan made it 10-10 against the Patriots just before the half. His 11-yard TD with 4:22 left made things uncomfortably close for the Pats before they held on to beat the Falcons, 30-23.
Gonzalez had 12 receptions for 149 yards in that game and his 23 catches for the season put him in the NFL's top 20 among all receivers. He's one of only eight players with at least 14,000 receiving yards, one of only eight with 100 touchdowns, and his 1,265 career catches are second all-time behind only the incomparable Jerry Rice. Needless to say, all of those Gonzo numbers are the best all-time among NFL tight ends.
"First and foremost, when you add a great player to your team, it makes you better," Matt Ryan said, also today rather than four years ago. "But beyond that, Tony's personality in the locker room, his leadership, for young guys to see what it takes to be one of the best, I think that's huge for us. He had an unbelievable game for us last week. He seems to be getting better the longer he plays. He's been great to have as a teammate for the last five years."
"We've played him throughout the years a couple of times," Jets S Dawan Landry said of running into Gonzalez as a Ravens safety before joining the Jets this year. "He's probably the best receiving tight end who ever played the game. He has a big body, he knows how to use his body, and he gets open."
Landry and his fellow DBs will try to ride herd on Gonzalez. So too might LBs David Harris and Demario Davis — Harris was in the short zone but was still not close enough to make a play on the ball, nor were any of his fellow defenders, back on that fateful day in '09.
And it's important for us to be aware of the 6"5", 247-pound tight end because an overemphasis on WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White on the outside can leave Gonzalez free to shake his coverage as he often does.
Is it a case of pick your poison, Rex Ryan was asked.
"Seems like it," he said. "He gets doubled and catches it, too. I'm watching some of those throws in there. The accuracy was pretty impressive, but those guys go up and get it. They have huge catching radiuses and they go up and get the ball."
If we want to right our own ship as well as continue the rain that is falling on the 1-3 Falcons' parade, we'll have to find a way to minimize Gonzalez's damage. And this time we'll need to do it for more than 58½ minutes.