Changing of the guard

Tony Gonzalez is far from done in his illustrious career but it has become apparent that Antonio Gates is the present and future of the elite at the tight end position.

Over the last two years when Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez have been on the same field, a total of two games as Gates sat out the finale, the younger tight end has scored five touchdowns on 17 receptions for 237 yards.

Gonzalez has also had his share of catches, 15 for 202 with just one touchdown in those two head-to-head matchups, but it is clear that Gates has taken his game to the next level.

Gates' ten-catch performance on Sunday was a career-high. His previous high had been eight, a feat he accomplished three times during the 2004 season and last week against Philadelphia.

"I had an opportunity to look at him a lot," said Gonzalez. "He's impressive. He's a great football player and I couldn't be happier for him."

Gates set a career-high in yards receiving as well. In the opener a year ago he gained 123 yards on eight receptions against Houston, eclipsing that mark with his 145 on Sunday.

Drew Brees hooked up with his favorite target three times, tying Gates' career-high for touchdowns in a game, a mark he set against New Orleans last year.

"We only see him get better and better," said Brees. "Having not played for four years. . ."

And that is just part of the amazement. Gates is in his third year after not playing during his college career. If anyone could have fathomed his career path, he would have been the first player taken in the NFL Draft instead of being an undrafted free agent.

It used to be that Gonzalez was the pedastel that every other aspiring tight end looked up to but these days Gates is making a strong case to be that guy.

"It's overwhelming at times to hear all these special things," Gates said of eclipsing Gonzalez as the best tight end in football. "It is mind boggling. At the same time I have fun. Regardless of the records and comparisons, I am trying to build an identity for Antonio Gates."

Not everyone is ready to crown him as the king of the hill. Gonzalez has the history to back him up. He has been doing since his first year in the league and has remained consistently tough to defend.

"I want to show him what Antonio Gates is all about and he wants to show me what Tony Gonzalez is all about," said Gates. "He has been doing it such a long time, seven, eight Pro Bowls. That question has to be answered over time."

"As Antonio continues to gain experience and continues to play I think he'll be at that same level," said head coach Marty Schottenheimer.

With all the comparisons and "wow" factor that is being bandied about, Gates remains the quintessential team player. He continually deflects the talk of himself as deftly as he runs a route.

If what he does during a game helps his team win than he is finally happy.

"It is similar to a game and a half for us because it is a division game," Gates said of the win.

And the Chargers, at 4-4, are back in the playoff race with Gates helping to lead the way.


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