On one side is the NFL’s all-time tight end touchdown leader, a surefire Hall of Famer still making an impact in his 16th season. He’ll be joined this week by one of the league’s top TE weapons who’ll be making his season debut after tearing his ACL back in May.
Meanwhile, on the other side is the most dominant tight end of the past decade who has been one of the league’s biggest mismatches from the moment he entered the NFL.
Yes, tight end intrigue abounds in the Divisional Round with Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry set to suit up for the Bolts and Rob Gronkowski lacing up his cleats for the Patriots.
Overall, it’s clear each side has the utmost respect for the opposition’s playmakers.
Just listen to what Patriots’ Head Coach Bill Belichick had to say when asked about Gates.
Number 85’s role may be different at this stage of his career, but the 38-year-old still comes through when his team needs a big play. That was certainly the case last week in the Chargers’ 23-17 Wild Card win over the Baltimore Ravens. Not only did he tie for the team lead with four catches for 35 yards, but he was a top target for Philip Rivers on the money down when they needed to move the chains.
“He’s had an incredible career,” Belichick said. “He’s still so hard to cover. He’s got very good quickness, obviously great hands. Very good quickness at the top of his routes. He creates separation and can use his size and his length and his hands. He’s never covered, really. No matter where the defender is, there’s a place where you can put the ball where he can get it and the defender can’t. Philip does a real good job of placing the ball there and Gates can certainly shield the defenders off and make big plays. He’s an athletic guy with a strong athletic catch and can always play for a few extra yards or make somebody miss with his quickness. He’s quicker than what you think he is and is a very athletic guy and he’s had a tremendous, tremendous career. I’ll be glad when he hangs them up. We won’t have to cover him.”
While Belichick may look forward to the day Gates retires, Rivers explained how grateful he is to have one more shot at it with his longtime teammate by his side.
“You look last week, he's obviously still contributing,” he noted. “He's been an awesome teammate in the locker room and on the field. So, it is exciting. (When) we found out he was coming back (again this season, the playoffs) was one of the things we talked about. We have a chance. We've got one last shot at it, and here we are.”
Meanwhile, perhaps the biggest wild card this week is Hunter Henry.
The third-year tight end was added to the active roster on Monday, making him eligible to play for the first time this season after tearing his ACL early in OTAs. No one knows what to expect from the 24-year-old, and Head Coach Anthony Lynn intimated several times in recent weeks that if Henry did make it back, he’d likely be on some sort of pitch count.
So, how are the Pats preparing for Henry?
“Like we always do,” Belichick said. “How they utilize him - that'll be up to them, but he's a very talented player. He's got great receiving skills. He's a threat in the passing game to go along with their other threats in the passing game at receiver, tight end and running back. It gives them another weapon with a great quarterback who can use all of his weapons at all of the positions. Yeah, it's another brick on the pile that we'll have to deal with.”
There’s nothing the Chargers would like more than to see a vintage Hunter Henry performance, but as Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt explained, it’s important to temper expectations.
Browse through the top practice photos as the Chargers get ready for Sunday's divisional playoff game in New England.
In fact, there’s still no guarantee he’ll be active come game day.
“I hope it is (the same old Hunter),” he said. “I don’t know that you can say that after having been off for this whole time, to go right into a game and say same old Hunter, but if there was somebody that could do that, he could be the guy. I’ll tell you what, you just have so much respect for how hard he’s worked to get back. You can tell and you can see it out there on the practice field. He loves the game. Whatever happens, I hope for him because of how hard he’s worked, he gets the opportunity to do that.”
And then there’s Gronk, who has dominated the position like no other in recent years. The Patriots’ superstar also has a penchant for raising his game when the stakes are at their highest.
“I'm expecting Gronk to be Gronk,” Lynn said bluntly. “It's playoff time. He shows up.”
While he had only four catches in New England’s final three games, the Chargers know they must be aware of his whereabouts at all times. The 6-6, 286-pound behemoth is a matchup nightmare who ranked third on the team with 47 catches for 682 yards and three touchdowns despite missing three games.
So, it goes without saying that the Bolts will have their hands full come Sunday.
“(He’s) very challenging,” Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley said. “I think you have to have great awareness where he is, but even if you have awareness where he is, he still makes plays. His length, his catch radius; he’s been doing it for a long time. He’s one of those players that they’re on the same page (with the quarterback). He’s a go-to guy for them in critical situations. A lot of tight ends you have awareness where they are, (but) we’ve really got to hone in on where he’s at.”
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