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Many happy returns: Gonzalez to Falcons, team to playoffs

A better day, the Atlanta Falcons could not have asked for.

It began with the confirmation that Tony Gonzalez would be back next season. The tight end, who had contemplated retirement, will delay his entry into the Hall of Fame. A one-year deal worth $7 million will make the wait easy to accept.

The day continued with an improbable Packers win over Detroit -- improbable because Matt Flynn, subbing for Aaron Rodgers, strafed the Lions with six touchdown throws and 480 yards. Geez, imagine if Rodgers had played.

That Green Bay went well after the Falcons' 4:15 p.m. kickoff before snuffing out the Lions might have caused coach Mike Smith some head-scratching on whether to rest some starters. A Detroit win would have doomed the Falcons to a sixth seed, no matter how they fared against Tampa Bay, and Smith might have treated Sunday's game as little more than an exhibition.

With Packers versus Lions still in the fourth quarter, Smith had no choice but to start his regulars, which played out as the perfect scenario. The Birds were boffo from the get-go, reeling off 42 straight points in a 45-24 win they needed for the No. 5 seed to build momentum into the playoffs.

Smith was madder than a lump-of-coal recipient on Christmas Day when the Bucs chopped into the lead. In fact, had they converted on a two-point conversion that would have closed the margin to 16, he might have had to reinsert quaterback Matt Ryan.

When it was over, Smith could chill out, realizing the Falcons would open the postseason at Dallas or the New York Giants instead of New Orleans, which might need to add a third digit to the home team column on the scoreboard when it meets the Lions. What could have been a likely loss now shapes up as a coin-flip game.

The Falcons might have finer days in 2012 than the first one. No more than a week's worth, though.


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