ATLANTA — When he first looked at Atlanta’s 2013 schedule, Tony Gonzalez was thrilled to see a late December rematch with the San Francisco 49ers.
Gonzalez envisioned the Falcons exacting revenge for San Francisco’s victory in last season’s NFC title game in Atlanta.
Unfortunately for Gonzalez, the league’s record-setting tight end, the circumstances couldn’t be much different.
The 49ers are 10-4 and close to securing another trip to the playoffs.
Atlanta, at 4-10, was the first NFC team eliminated from postseason contention, essentially making a disappointment out of Gonzalez’s decision to put off retirement and return for a final season.
"Last year was last year," Gonzalez said Friday. "That’s in the past."
Even so, the Falcons’ freefall in the standings hasn’t caused Gonzlaez to close out his career in bitterness.
He has focused instead on the good times, from his first 12 seasons with Kansas City to his last five with the Falcons, and the remarkable consistency as the NFL’s No. 2 career-leading receiver.
"That’s what separates average players from good players, good players from Pro Bowl players and Pro Bowl players from Hall of Famers," Gonzalez said. "That’s what I try to do every time that I’m out there on that field. Every play is a chance for me to go out there on that field and be great."
For the most part, despite only one playoff victory in his career, Gonzalez has done just that.
Only Jerry Rice caught more passes. Only Rice, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss and Isaac Bruce had more yards receiving. Only Rice, Moss, Owens, Cris Carter and Marvin Harrison had more touchdown receptions.
Gonzalez redefined his position, statistically surpassing the numbers posted by Dave Casper, Mike Ditka, John Mackey, Ozzie Newsome, Charlie Sanders, Shannon Sharpe, Jackie Smith and Kellen Winslow — eight tight ends enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"The great part about him is it doesn’t matter if there’s two games left or we’re in Week 1 or 2 or whatever," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said, "he approaches each one the same way. He’s intense, focused and excited, and he’s been that way for five years since I’ve been around him."
With just two games left, Gonzalez almost can’t believe the end is near.
On one hand, he’s grateful to be almost done because the weekly grind of practice, conditioning and film study is a crashing bore.
"If you ask any player around the league, it’s not about what goes on during the week," he said. "That’s not the part that you’re going to miss. I’m forcing myself to try to enjoy it because it’s tough."
The thrill of playing in games, however, still makes him feel young.
"It’s only two games, but I still want to go out there and give the very best of me that I can," Gonzalez said. "I don’t want to leave any stone unturned, and that’s always been my approach. That’s not going to change."
He’s already feeling nostalgic about returning to the Bay Area, where he began his college career 20 years ago at California and went on to become a first-round draft pick by the Chiefs in 1997.
Gonzalez, a Southern California native, has tried to buy as many tickets as possible for family members and friends.
It will be his last chance on the road to make a positive impression.
"I feel great," he said. "I could play at a good level for at least another year, another two years, maybe even three, (but) it’s over as far as I’m concerned."
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
AP sports writers Janie McCauley and Charles Odum contributed to this report.