ATLANTA -- Tony Gonzalez sat in front of his locker in nearly full Falcons uniform long after many of his teammates already had put on their street clothes.
The record-setting tight end knew that his 16-year career was over, and he was having a hard time letting go.
"I didn't want to take it off," Gonzalez said of his uniform after finally getting undressed and taking his final NFL shower.
Tears of joy had followed the Falcons' comeback victory over Seattle a week earlier. Gonzalez's wet eyes were from the usual reason this time. His heartbreak was very real.
Even after getting dressed, the former Cal star needed a few extra minutes to compose himself before talking to the media.
Gonzalez had caught eight passes and scored a touchdown. But the Falcons, up 17-0 before the 49ers got their initial first down, had come up a win short of the Super Bowl, losing 28-24 on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
"It's time," Gonzalez said of his retirement plans. "You can't keep chasing the Super Bowl."
Gonzalez had never even won a playoff game until last week, going 0-5 with the Chiefs and Falcons.
His teammates were already lobbying Gonzalez to come back for another season late Sunday. Gonzalez, though, seems determined to stay firm.
"They respect my plans," Gonzalez, 36, said. "They understand."
The Falcons might have been in position to send Gonzalez out with a Super Bowl ring if they had been able to sustain the first-half offense that produced 24 points, or stage another of the fourth-quarter comebacks that quarterback Matt Ryan has regularly produced.
Ryan drove the Falcons to the 49ers' 10-yard line with less than two minutes remaining. But passes intended for wide receiver Roddy White on third and fourth down were incomplete, the first tipped and the last knocked away by linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
"The guy kinda jumped on my shoulder, but they're not going to call that," White said. "The game's too tight."
Gonzalez, who had caught a 10-yard TD pass from Ryan before halftime, had lined up on the right on the fourth-down play and drawn single coverage. But Ryan never looked his way, instead zeroing in on primary target White.
"They played a coverage we didn't think they were going to play," White said.
"The defense kind of fooled us there," Gonzalez added.
"We had two chances," said Ryan, who had banged up his left shoulder earlier. "On third down, they had the tipped ball, and then on fourth down we tried to make something happen and we just couldn't get it done."
After racking up 297 yards in the first half, the Falcons committed two costly turnovers and were limited to 180 yards in the second.
Ryan, who finished with 396 yards on 30-for-42 passing, threw an interception when White slipped and lost a fumble on a bobbled shotgun snap when he took his eye off the ball briefly.
"We stopped ourselves," White said. "That interception was on me."
Still, the Falcons, to a man, said they were confident they could score a touchdown when Ryan got the ball back after the 49ers had gone ahead with 8:23 to play.
"There wasn't a doubt in my mind," said wide receiver Harry Douglas, who caught a 22-yard pass down to the 49ers' 28.
The Falcons, who had lost running back Michael Turner to an ankle injury early in the third quarter, picked up a first down at the 16. But Jacquizz Rodgers gained just a yard on first down, and a short pass to Jason Snelling on second down gained only 5 yards.
Then came the two incomplete passes.
"I was very confident. Everyone was," Gonzalez said. "We were confident that we were going to get it in there, but we just came up short."
When the Falcons did, Gonzalez felt empty. But he refused to curse the end of the road.
"I'm disappointed, but you will not catch me complaining," the future Hall of Famer said. " I've had a great ride. ... It may not have culminated in a Super Bowl, but ... I can't complain. I can't complain, and I won't."