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

Five potential Ravens targets in the second round of the NFL Draft

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Five potential Ravens targets in the second round of the NFL Draft

The Ravens will be on the clock early again on Friday night, scheduled to pick fifth in the second round, at No.  36 overall. After taking Notre Dame tackle Ronnie Stanley with their first pick at No. 6 overall, the Ravens could turn to the defense in the second round, and there is a lot of defensive talent still on the board.

Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said on Thursday night that the Ravens expect to get a first-round talent with their second pick.

"We love the top 36 players in this draft," DeCosta said. "So we're going to get an outstanding player. ... We're very, very confident that at 36 we're going to get a guy that we feel like is a first-round type talent."

So who might that be? Here, in alphabetical order, are a few candidates that could be in play when the Ravens are on the clock:

CB Mackensie Alexander, Clemson

The Ravens couldn't trade up for Jalen Ramsey, so they remain in the market for cornerback help. Alexander has shutdown capabilities though there are concerns about his height (5-10) matching up with elite receivers on the outside. Ravens assistant GM Eric DeCosta predicted a run on cornerbacks between picks 25 and 40, and Alexander figures in that equation.

OLB Kamalei Correa, Boise State

An early entry to the draft, Correa had 12 sacks as a sophomore at Boise State and then seven this past season. Correa (6-3, 243) has played defensive end and linebacker but is considered best suited as an edge rusher in a 3-4 defense.

CB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech

Kendall is about to become the fourth Fuller brother to be drafted, and he could find his way back to his hometown Ravens. A knee injury early last season knocked Fuller out of the first round, but he's a first-round talent when healthy and would be a nice fit for the Ravens.  

LB Myles Jack, UCLA

Wait a minute, he's still around? Yes, Jack had been mentioned as a Ravens first-round pick in many mock drafts, but concerns about his knee -- which he exacerbated by mentioning the possibility of microfracture surgery -- sent him tumbling down draft boards. Still, he's a potential top-10 talent who is still available.

DE Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky

Spence is the type of edge rusher the Ravens have said they covet. He had eight sacks as a sophomore at Ohio State. But off-the-field issues remain his biggest question mark; he was booted from Ohio State because of failed drug tests and tried to boost his draft stock by transferring to Eastern Kentucky, where he recorded 11 1/2 sacks last year.

Ravens tried trading up for Jalen Ramsey, Cowboys said no

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Ravens tried trading up for Jalen Ramsey, Cowboys said no

Ronnie Stanley was the Ravens’ choice, but they were chasing Jalen Ramsey.

The Ravens tried trading up to No. 4 with the Cowboys in Round 1 to take defensive back Jalen Ramsey of Florida St., an NFL source said, confirming an ESPN report. In return, the Ravens were offering the sixth pick and one of their fourth-round picks.

However, the Cowboys had trepidation about trading down to No. 6, afraid that another team might trade up to No. 5 and take running back Ezekiel Elliott. So the Cowboys stayed put at No. 4 and took Elliott, the Jaguars took Ramsey at No. 5, while the Ravens opted for Stanley at No. 6 over Oregon defensive end DeForest Bucker, who the 49ers took at No. 7.

Asked whether he had conversations about moving up in Round 1, Ravens general manger Ozzie Newsome said, “We had some conversation in the room, and I would say we talked to a team.”

Ramsey’s ability to play both safety and corner, along with his physicality, could have dramatically changed the look of the Ravens’ secondary. But getting Ramsey was always going to be difficult for the Ravens.

With that door now closed, it would not be surprising to see the Ravens take a cornerback with their early second-round pick (No. 36 overall) Friday night.

Mackensie Alexander of Clemson, Kendall Fuller of Virginia Tech, Cyrus Jones of Alabama, and Xavien Howard of Baylor are among top corners still on the board.

Why Ravens feel they made right call with Stanley over Tunsil

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Why Ravens feel they made right call with Stanley over Tunsil

Here are three reasons why drafting left tackle Ronnie Stanley with the No. 6 pick made sense for the Ravens:

1. They need a left tackle they can count on, and Eugene Monroe hasn’t been that guy. 

Monroe has been injury-prone the last two seasons, and it’s clear his future with the team is uncertain. Perhaps a healthy Monroe spends another season with the Ravens, and Stanley can play left guard if he struggles during offseason workouts and training camp. But the Ravens drafted Stanley with the intention of him being the starting left tackle. Listen to what coach John Harbaugh had to say when asked about Monroe, and the left tackle position.

“It pans out how it pans out,” Harbaugh said. “May the best man win. We’ll see who that is.” 

2. The Ravens believe they can trust Stanley, both on and off the field.

The Ravens couldn’t miss on this pick, which means they couldn’t risk someone who carries off-the-field baggage. That made the choice between Stanley and Mississipi left tackle Laremy Tunsil easier. Harbaugh is close friends with Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. Harbaugh and Hiestand had a long conversation about Stanley that helped sell Harbaugh.

“He couldn’t speak enough to his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness, and to what kind of football player he was going to be Harbaugh said. 

3. All the Ravens’ plans for next season go down the drain if Joe Flacco suffers another season-ending injury. 

“We just invested a lot in Joe (Flacco ) for the next six years,” said general manager Ozzie Newsome. “We feel like Ronnie comes in with an opportunity to compete, and at some point will be a starter and a starter for a long time for the Baltimore Ravens.”

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