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SAN DIEGO (AP) — Go ahead and question Antonio Gates because he's 34. Feel free to wonder whether he's lost a step.
And then sit back and watch a performance like last Sunday's, when Gates caught three touchdown passes from Philip Rivers to lead the Chargers to a 30-21 upset of the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
Gates' first TD was an over-the-shoulder catch in the back of the end zone. The second came after he put a nice move on a defender. The capper was a tremendous one-handed catch.
Even if he has lost a step, the star tight end hasn't lost his ability to use his basketball smarts to get position against defenders, particularly inside the 20-yard-line. His hands remain among the surest in the NFL — even if only needs to use one of them. After two games he leads the Chargers (1-1) with 13 catches for 177 yards and three scores.
Gates said he's heard chatter from people who assume he's washed up. He wonders, though, what criteria they use. After struggling through a few seasons due to painful foot injuries, he bounced back last year with a team-high 77 catches, for 872 yards and four touchdowns. San Diego, in turn, ended a three-year playoff drought and won a postseason game for the first time since 2008.
"It's hard not to use it as motivation," Gates said. "It bothers me in the sense because I want to be the best and I try to go out and do the best I can. But for the most part this team, this organization, has always had tremendous confidence in me. There's never a time where I felt slighted as a person, as a player, in this league."
Gates has dealt with bigger issues. He came into camp in great shape despite missing most offseason workouts to be with his 22-year-old sister, Pamela, who died on July 23 after battling lupus for three years.
Gates' three-TD performance Sunday gave him 90 for his career, moving him past Larry Fitzgerald (87) and Hall of Famers Andre Reed (87) and Don Maynard (88) and into No. 11 on the all-time list. His next scoring catch will move him into the Top 10, tying Isaac Bruce with 91.
He ranks second all-time among tight ends behind Tony Gonzalez (111).
Perhaps more importantly, Rivers and Gates have connected on 65 career touchdown passes, the most in NFL history between a quarterback and a tight end.
Gates' 21-yard TD catch Sunday was epic. He split two defenders and extended for Rivers' pass, reaching out with his left hand to gather it in before hitting the ground and ending up flat on his back, holding up the ball with his right hand.
"Philip was being Philip," Gates said. "I was feeling his confidence in me and he put the ball basically where no other player could get it but me."
That's where familiarity and countless hours of practice over the years have paid off. Gates joined the Chargers in 2003 as an undrafted rookie after starring in basketball at Kent State, where he helped the Golden Flashes come within one victory of the Final Four in 2002.
Rivers came along in 2004 and became the starter in 2006 after Drew Brees was allowed to leave as a free agent.
Gates and Rivers have had adjoining lockers for years.
They know each other's tendencies so well that Rivers described his three TD passes to Gates on Sunday as being "a little bit backyard."
Gates said Rivers can read his posture and "he knows all my little moves. It's funny. You've got to see him imitate me because he's really good at it. Like if he's explaining something to me, like, 'This is what I want you to do,' he'll go through my whole personality. 'Hey, do this.'"
Not wanting to embarrass himself, Rivers declined to do his Gates imitation.
"He always laughs," Rivers said. "I always say, 'I'm telling you, I know what you're going to do.' "
Before signing with the Chargers in 2003, Gates hadn't played football since his senior season at Detroit's Central High.
"Just being able to run a route and get open and get separation. That's something I had to learn," he said. "In this league, as long as you can get open, you can always play. Some athletes play receiver and some receivers are athletes. I like to feel I came in as an athlete but I wanted to be one of those guys that learned the basic fundamentals of the game at that position. That's what's helping me now."
Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson
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