SAN DIEGO —Upon his arrival at Qualcomm Stadium for Sunday’s game against the Chargers, Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez saw a Gameday magazine sitting at the foot of his locker room stall.
“I see the cover and it says, ‘Antonio Gates is the standard by which all tight ends are measured,’ “ said Gonzalez. “That gets me going a little bit and makes me want to go out there and play the best I can.”
As if Gonzalez needed any additional incentive.
Call it the tale of two tight ends, one that someday will be recounted in Canton on the steps of the Hall of Fame.
Gonzalez and Gates don’t meet face-to-face as often as they did when Gonzalez was playing in the AFC West for Kansas City, but the competition remains spirited between two of the best players ever to play the position.
“We’re a whole lot different as to how we influence the game,” said Gates. “I’m more of a down the field guy, red zone. Tony’s liable to have 15 catches for 70 yards. He’s always catching the ball.”
It seemed that way much of the afternoon for Gonzalez in the Falcons’ 27-3 victory. He caught a game-high nine passes for 91 yards and one touchdown. Gates managed three receptions for 22 yards.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan went to Gonzalez time and again for key completions. None was bigger than the 7-yard TD catch in the second quarter that provided the Falcons with a 13-0 lead.
“We had some matchups that we really liked. We thought we could take advantage of them,” said Falcons head coach Mike Smith. “I felt that we did a nice job of getting the ball to Tony Gonzalez.”
The same couldn’t be said for the Chargers and Gates. He came into the season healthy for the first time in three years but suffered a rib injury in the season opener against the Raiders and missed last week’s game against Tennessee.
Gates returned against the Falcons, but never was a factor. In fact, two of the times Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers targeted Gates, Atlanta safety Thomas DeCoud stepped in to intercept the ball.
Gates didn’t have a reception until catching a 7-yard pass with less than a minute to play in the first half. In the third quarter, he had a drop deep in Falcons territory that stalled a Chargers drive.
“I’ve got to do some things better to help this football team,” said Gates. “I’ve got to make the catches I know I should make.”
Gonzalez has a touchdown catch in three straight games this season and now has 98 touchdown catches for his career.
Gonzalez is known for dunking over the goal post to celebrate touchdowns, but he chose to take a goal-line jump shot after the second-quarter TD. His form was good, with elbow back and high arch on the ball.
“I’ve played a lot of basketball in the offseason,” said Gonzalez.
Perhaps it was a nod to Gates — a college basketball player at Kent State who didn’t play football until he was a professional — although Gonzalez played both football and basketball in college at Cal.
While Gonzalez and Gates never match up together on the football field, the two could go one-on-one on the basketball court.
“He don’t want to do that,” said Gates.
Sounds like a challenge.