It is with bittersweet letters that I type we’ve made it to the final game of the 2020-21 NFL season. There is only one game left to play and only two teams still alive, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will host—see what I did there?—the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl this Sunday.
With this game comes plenty of headliner matchups. First and foremost, this is Tom Brady versus Patrick Mahomes. Brady, going for his seventh ring, is widely considered the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, while Mahomes, going for his second ring in a row, is starting the conversation of what could be a potentially historic career if health is on his side over the next decade or more.
But this is more than just the quarterbacks. It’s one of the most talented offenses in the NFL going up against a young secondary that is coming into its own. It’s two backup offensive tackles taking on two of the hottest pass rushers down the stretch. And it’s also about two of the greatest tight ends to ever play the game on the same field for the same game.
Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski and Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce are football royalty. They may not be anywhere close to the 15,000 receiving yards record for a tight end that Tony Gonzalez has, but they also haven’t even played half of the 270 games Gonzalez did. Rather than looking at raw stats, let’s look at impact.
In his 131 games played, Gronkowski has compiled 8,484 yards, and his 64.8 yards per game are good for the second-most ever for a tight end. His 86 touchdowns are third all-time behind Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, but Gronkowski’s 0.65 touchdowns per game are far and away the most of any top tight end.
The only other player who is close to Gronkowski in terms of consistent output at the top is Kelce.
Kelce has 7,881 receiving yards in 111 games, and his 71 yards-per-game average is the most of any tight end in league history. His 48 touchdowns rank just 10th all-time for a total number, but his 0.43 touchdowns per game are fourth behind only Gronkowski, Gates, and Jimmy Graham.
But which of these two tight ends has been better when it has mattered most; when it’s been “win or go home”? Who has been better in the postseason?
In 19 career playoff games, Gronkowski has 1,206 receiving yards on 83 catches with 12 touchdowns. In 2014, 2015, and 2017, Gronkowski caught three touchdowns and recorded more than 200 yards receiving in each postseason.
As for Kelce, in 11 playoff games, he’s recorded 859 receiving yards on 73 catches with nine touchdowns. In the past two postseasons, Kelce has recorded 434 receiving yards with seven receiving touchdowns. Just like in the total career categories, Kelce has Gronkowski beat in yards per game and catch percentage.
Longevity certainly is on Gronkowski’s side, as is the fact that he was making big-time postseason contributions at just 21 and 22 years old, where Kelce didn’t record his first playoff stats until he was 26. Of course, so much more goes into playoff opportunities than a tight end can account for, but Gronkowski hitting the ground running when games mattered the most at such a young age is something that should be appreciated and accounted for in the dominance he’s shown at the position over the last decade.
However, I don’t think you’d find many who would take Gronkowski over Kelce for this weekend’s matchup. Kelce is coming off three of the best seasons we’ve ever seen from a tight end—seasons measured against the likes of Gronkowski. Kelce has caught seven or more passes in each game his team has played since Week 7 of this season and has scored a touchdown in six consecutive games.
Who has been better in the postseason for their career? That still belongs to Gronkowski. But Kelce is making a case that he’s having the best year we’ve seen from anyone at the position.
Young or old, then or now, health permitting, these will go down as two of the best the game has ever seen.
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