Travis Kelce has always been competitive, whether it was on the playground as a kid, the Cleveland Heights football field in high school, or inside Nippert Stadium at the University of Cincinnati.
It didn’t change when he was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs, either.
If anything, the tight end became even more competitive, setting a goal to be the best player at his position in the NFL.
And on Saturday, he’ll have his biggest platform yet to state his case when the Chiefs visit the New England Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs.
On the other sideline? Rob Gronkowski, considered to be the best tight end in the game, although he has been limited in practice this week due to back and knee problems.
“I have no control over what that guy does. He has no control over what I do,” Kelce said.
“Rob’s been an outstanding tight end, needless to say — all the stuff he’s been able to do in the league. But we’re in a single elimination game. I have no focus or care for what that offense does.”
Nor does Gronkowski care what the Kansas City offense does. Both tight ends are focused on beating the opposing defense, not beating each other in catches or yards or touchdowns.
It sure is an interesting game within the game, though.
Gronkowski was the Patriots’ leading receiver with 1,176 yards this season, while Kelce was the Chiefs’ second-leading receiver with 875. That put both of them in the top four in the AFC among tight ends, with Gronkowski at the peak of the ladder and Kelce just a few rungs below.
They are also first and fourth, respectively, in yards receiving over the past two years. But it’s Kelce who has the most yards-after-catch among tight ends over that time with 1,045. Gronkowski is next at 1,022, another example of just how closely they mirror each other.
“We see a very good tight end in practice every day, so that’s great. Very challenging for us,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said.
“But there’s a lot of good tight ends in the league. (Kelce) is certainly one of the better ones and one of the guys that’s most productive.”
His performance in last weekend’s wild-card win over Houston proved it. Kelce had eight catches for 128 yards, the third-most productive performance in a playoff game in franchise history.
“Kelce’s good. He’s explosive,” Patriots cornerback Patrick Chung said. “He’s explosive, good hands, good run-after-the-catch. That’s key with him. He’s good. He wouldn’t be in the playoffs — that team wouldn’t be in the playoffs — if he wasn’t good.”
All of those descriptors of Kelce just as accurately apply to Gronkowski, and for good reason: The Patriots tight end has become the mold for all tight ends.
He’s big and rangy and physical, but he also has enough speed to stretch defenses. He is a matchup nightmare for a safety, and virtually impossible to defend for a cornerback. Yet when asked to put his hand in the dirt and block in the run game, he is capable of plowing over a linebacker.
“He’s a competitor,” Chiefs safety Eric Berry said. “That along with his size and just his ability as well. But I feel like he’s a big-time competitor. He’s going to compete.”
Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson was asked to consider the differences between the two tight ends.
“We use Kelce like they use Gronk. He’s a big factor in the red zone for them,” Pederson said. “We try to do the same things with Kelce. Thinking about both, we move our guy around, they move their guy around. It’s harder to find the cons than the pros, because we use our guy like they use theirs.”
There are subtle differences. The Chiefs use Kelce in stack and bunch formations, splitting him out with wide receivers in an attempt to disguise his routes.
Gronkowski often lines up all along in the Patriots scheme, taking advantage of the physical mismatch he presents in one-on-one coverage.
“That would be about the only difference,” Pederson said.