Even Antonio Gates had to laugh.
With the future Hall of Famer having a reduced role due to the emergence of Hunter Henry, the tight end hasn’t put up his usual stats. However, with Henry out for the year with a kidney injury, the Bolts dialed up Gates’ number on multiple occasions.
Boy did he deliver.
Number 85 finished the game with six catches for 81 yards and one touchdown. He repeatedly came through in the clutch to catapult the Bolts to a 14-7 win.
Asked about what it was like to have a throwback performance after a year like the one he’s had, Gates let out a small chuckle before delivering a response as vintage as his big game.
“He’s a Hall of Famer for a reason,” Had Coach Anthony Lynn said.
“I’m just trying to do whatever I can do to help us win,” Gates mentioned. “It’s weird because people are talking to me (this year) like I’ve never been in the end zone before. I’ve caught some passes in this league! So I am more comfortable in this role of (getting in rhythm with more targets) than I am in the other. This is what I’m accustomed to doing. When you want to have a good team, you’ve got to have the next man up mentality. And this was my opportunity to help the guys win.”
It’s almost insane to think that a player with Gates’ resume could be considered the next man up. Philip Rivers had a good laugh about that as well. The pair have the second-most combined touchdowns between a QB and WR/TE in NFL history, yet, here the tight end is late in the year needing to “step up.”
“I knew he would,” Rivers said. “It was weird. Like I told you earlier in the week when Hunter goes down, and you’re like, ‘Alright, the tight end group’s got to pick it up. Oh, it’s Antonio Gates. The Hall of Famer and all-time touchdown leader in the history of tight ends.’”
There was no doubt Rivers would be able to rely on his trusted target like he’s done so many times for over a decade.
“You knew he would be ready to go. The guy has been all year. Really, he’s to be commended the way he’s handled the whole thing all year. He’s been the guy for 14 seasons, and then to really kind of take a backseat to Hunter and play a limited role, but stay ready, the pro he’s been, he’s to be commended for it. He caught the touchdown, had some big plays and catches, and was a big part in our success today.”
The touchdown was also vintage Rivers-to-Gates.
Number 17 allowed Gates to gain leverage despite tight coverage, putting the ball where only he could snare it for the three-yard score.
“It’s still special,” Gates said. “I never take this stuff for granted because it’s so hard to do. It’s so hard to score in this league because guys are so competitive. It’s a blessing because you envision yourself making plays on a daily basis. When your opportunity comes it’s that much harder, especially when they know you’re capable of doing it”
Through it all, Gates remains one of the most popular players in the locker room. That’s why his teammates were ecstatic to see him come through with a big game in a must-win situation.
"This is what he does,” said Melvin Gordon. “I’m glad that he was put in position to show that he’s still got it. We know that he’s still got it, but obviously you have Hunter and young guys you want to get in there. But he’s the GOAT. It’s the reason that he is and he showed that today.”
“Antonio was big,” added Keenan Allen. “Third down, his catches. His touchdown was major. That was a great catch. That’s Antonio though. That’s expected. If it’s man coverage, (the other guy) is dead!”