FOXBORO, Mass. — Tom Brady and Philip Rivers won’t be the only aging legends on the field when the New England Patriots and Los Angeles square off in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
Don’t forget about Antonio Gates.
Gates, the Chargers’ longtime tight end, is 38, having made his NFL debut for the then-San Diego Chargers way back in 2003. And while he’s not nearly as nimble, productive or critical to LA’s offensive success as he was at the peak of his career, he remains a valuable weapon for Rivers.
“He?s in there in most critical situations — third down, red area, some second-down situations, occasionally on first down,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “But really, I?d say the more important the situation, more of a possession play it is, probably more he?s going to be in there.”
Fourteen of Gates’ 28 catches and 23 of his 45 targets this season have come on third down, with 11 of those receptions resulting in either a first down or a touchdown. He nearly has as many third-down targets as Chargers receivers Mike Williams (25 in 622 offensive snaps) and Tyrell Williams (24 in 761) despite playing roughly half as many snaps (364).
For comparison’s sake, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who raved about Gates in his Thursday news conference, has 22 third-down targets in 838 snaps this season.
“I love Antonio Gates,” the 29-year-old said. “He?s been playing since I?ve been in high school. I just love his game. … It?s just surreal how he keeps going at the age he is and the way he?s playing.”
Neither Gronkowski nor Gates — both of whom likely are bound for the Hall of Fame — is at the height of his powers at this point in their respective careers. Gronkowski clearly has lost a step after an All-Pro 2017 season, and the much older Gates often looks like he’s trudging through quicksand as he runs through his routes.
Still, Gates remains effective in the role he plays for the Chargers, who cut him in April but brought him back after Hunter Henry tore his ACL in the preseason. Both tight ends should be active for Sunday’s playoff tilt after Henry returned to the 53-man roster this week.
“He?s quick,” Belichick said of Gates. “He?s got great route savvy. He?s got, obviously, outstanding hands and size. He knows how to body guys up well — he can get on one side of them, Rivers throws it on the other side. A lot of third-down conversations, red-area touchdowns.
“But he?s a slick route runner. He?s very crafty, does a good job stemming the defenders, he?s got good quickness at the top of the routes to separate and he?s pretty good after the catch. He can make guys miss with the ball in his hands. He?s still pretty effective.”