Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski don’t line up against each other. But the AFC Divisional playoff game between the Chiefs and Patriots on Saturday in New England could turn on which tight end can outperform the other.
Gronkowski, the sixth-year pro, is considered the game’s gold standard. Earlier in the season, former Chiefs great Tony Gonzalez suggested Gronk could become the best tight end in the game’s history, beyond the likes of himself, John Mackey, Kellen Winslow and Shannon Sharpe.
But will Gronkowski be limited this weekend? He missed practice and spent time in a Boston hospital on Thursday getting treatment on an injured right knee. He was limited in practice Wednesday.
Kelce also has been listed on the Chiefs injury report because of a groin problem, but he’s been a full practice participant.
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Both are expected to play.
Kelce has emerged as one of the game’s top tight ends and a primary target for quarterback Alex Smith.
Both players have 72 receptions this season, tying for eighth in the NFL among tight ends. Gronkowski’s 11 touchdowns rank only behind the Bengals’ Tyler Eifert. Kelce’s 875 receiving yards rank second on the Chiefs and sixth in the NFL.
Kelce said outperforming Gronkowski doesn’t make his priority list.
“I have no control over what that guy does and he has no control over what I do,” Kelce said. “Hat’s off to him. Rob has been an outstanding tight end, needless to say.”
Besides, if it’s not part of the game preparation, Kelce said he’s not interested.
“We’re in a single-elimination game, so I have no focus or no care for anything the (Patriots) offense does while I’m not on the field,” he said. “It’s one of those things where you just prepare for you and go out and do everything to help your team.”
That focus seems to have evolved over the past few weeks. Kelce has been less demonstrative after receptions. This from the player who wound up and punched the football through the end zone on his second touchdown of the season, at Houston, in the opener.
Kelce has been in playoff mode for weeks.
“Right now, I’m just on a mission,” Kelce said. “You can’t get too high or too low. It’s a game where the next play matters even more than the last one did, and it’s kind of gotten in my mind-frame that getting too high after a big catch can affect the next play.”
Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson sees differences in the way the teams use their tight ends.
“They single (Gronk) up, use his size and speed and strength one-on-one more so, and we use Kelce more so in a bunch, a stack,” Pederson said.
But both players are advancing the position with their athleticism.
“You’re seeing that coming out of college,” Pederson said. “You’re seeing the versatility, the athleticism, guys who can run at that position.”
Kelce has been an integral part of Andy Reid’s offense for the past two seasons. His five touchdowns matched his 2014 season, and his 103 targets were one more per game than last season.
In his first playoff game, Kelce was outstanding with eight receptions for 128 yards. The number of catches matched a career best and his yardage was not only a personal best but the third-most productive receiving game by a Chiefs player in the postseason.
Kelce has the full attention of the Patriots.
“He’s a good player, he’s constantly productive,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He does a lot of things well, certainly a key part of the offense. I don’t think there is any question about his skills and how important he is to the Chiefs.”
New England got a heavy dose of Kelce in the Chiefs’ 41-14 regular-season victory at Arrowhead Stadium last season, when he turned eight receptions into 93 yards and a touchdown.
The prospect of a big game from Kelce looms large with the uncertain status of Chiefs wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, who sustained a high ankle sprain last week and went through warm-ups on Thursday but not team drills.
Kelce said that wouldn’t change his approach. Nor would the play of Gronkowski. The Patriots’ defense? That’s Kelce’s concern.
“They’re notorious for throwing anything at you,” Kelce said. “Whether it’s a certain type of coverage, a certain type of blitz, you have to make sure you have your answers for everything they throw at you.”