FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who holds most of the receiving records for the position, is set to play the farewell game of his illustrious 17-year career in the NFL on Sunday.
Falcons coach Mike Smith said that Gonzalez can play as many snaps as he wants when the Falcons (4-11) face the Carolina Panthers (11-4) at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
"I know it will be a very emotional week for Tony and his teammates," Smith said. "Tony has had a great career. He's such a good leader." Gonzalez caught eight passes for 63 yards and one touchdown against San Francisco on Monday. He leads the team in receptions with 79 and has 803 yards and eight touchdowns this season.
Gonzalez is the NFL's leading active receiver and ranks fifth in NFL history with 111 career touchdown receptions.
Against the 49ers, Gonzalez tied former Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler for fifth in franchise history with his 35th touchdown catch with the team. He is one of seven players in club history to record 30-or-more touchdown catches.
The Falcons sent a second-round draft pick to the Kansas City Chiefs to acquire Gonzalez in 2009. He has had five strong seasons and has mentored several of the players.
"Guys have been mentored by him not only by words, but by his actions," Smith said.
The Falcons want to send Gonzalez out with one last victory.
"That is something that will be on our (to do list) this week," Smith said. "We must send Tony out the right way. He deserves it. Like always, he will be a big part of our game plan." Third quarter woes: In four of Matt Ryan's previous five seasons, the Falcons were polishing things off and getting ready for the playoffs, twice as the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
In 2009, the Falcons were playing the 16th game at Tampa Bay with a lot on the line. The Falcons needed a win to post a 9-7 record. That win marked the franchise's first back-to-back winning seasons.
The Panthers need a victory to wrap up the NFC South title over the New Orleans Saints, who are 10-5 and host Tampa Bay at 4:25 p.m. Sunday.
"We'd certainly like to be in a different situation than we are," Ryan said.
The Falcons need a win over Carolina and a Saints win over Tampa Bay to avoid joining the 2003 Raiders and 2005 Eagles as the only teams to finish in last place after being the No. 1 conference seed since the league went to playoff seeding in 1975.
The Panthers beat the Falcons 34-10 on Nov. 3 in Charlotte. The Panthers led 14-10 at halftime as they held the Falcons scoreless in the second-half.
In was another game where the Falcons struggled in the third quarter on offense.
The Falcons have been outscored 86-49 in the third quarter this season. They were scoreless against the 49ers in the third quarter before nearly rallying to victory.
The coaches insist they make adjustments throughout the game and that the team's third quarter issues are execution-related.
Ryan is not sure why they struggle so in the third quarter and credited the 49ers with playing good defense.
"We were going against a good defense," Ryan said. "I think we knew coming into that, again, there were going to be drives where we had opportunities to convert. We needed to convert and create some explosive plays on third down." Motivation time: Safety William Moore doesn't believe the Falcons will have any problem with being motivated to face the Panthers.
"It's shouldn't be hard," Moore said. "It's the last game of the season. What are you saving it for?" After falling from Super Bowl contenders to fighting to not finish in last place, the Falcons know that change in the player ranks will happen.
"It's going to be important for guys to come out, not only for the football team, but to protect your job," Moore said. "This is everything. It defines you. This last game will define what type of person that you are." Tackling leaders: Moore (124) and linebacker Paul Worrilow (123) will enter the final game as the tackle leaders, according to the coaches' film review stats.
Linebacker Joplo Bartu (90) is third, safety Thomas DeCoud (80) is fourth and cornerback Desmond Trufant (68) is fifth.
Worrilow, who made the team as an undrafted free agent from Delaware, said he can't believe his dream season is coming to an end.
"It's coming fast," Worrilow said. "It's been a fast season. There has been a lot of learning curves. You have to take advantage of your time out there and you try to do the best that you can." Peters' recovery: Falcons defensive tackle Corey Peters has a recovery period of eight months for his ruptured Achilles. He could be ready by the start of training camp.
His situation is complicated because he's set to become a free agent in March.
Staff writer Michael Cunningham contributed to this report.
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