Two of the National Football League's premier tight ends are set to face each other in the NFC Conference Championship game.
Vernon Davis and Tony Gonzalez, the featured tight ends for both the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons, certainly have a great deal of mutual respect.
Davis, 28, enters the biggest game of his professional career against Gonzalez, a 13-time Pro Bowl performer, coming off his first career postseason win in 16 seasons.
It's not like the two will have to cover each other when the 49ers and Falcons meet this Sunday, but both will likely be well aware of each other's production.
"I think he's a good player," Davis said of Gonzalez on Tuesday. "I definitely look up to him; he's one of the best to ever play the game. I just think he's been doing a terrific job playing as long as he's been playing and helping his team out."
Gonzalez continues to impress, despite 2012 potentially being his final year in the NFL. The Falcons tight end hasn't announced retirement plans just yet, but did tell the Atlanta media that he's close to calling it a career at the end of the year.
It's not just Davis who has respect for the future Hall of Famer. Pro Bowl safety Donte Whitner and the rest of the 49ers defense still view Gonzalez as a big weapon in the Atlanta attack.
"He can still make all the plays," Whitner said. "You better believe that if he's 95 percent saying he's going to retire, then he really wants to get this game, they really want to get that Super Bowl. We have to understand that and go out and match their intensity and match his, and be ready to play a hard-fought football game."
Davis believes the Falcons tight end is still a reliable weapon on the field, especially in the red zone. Gonzalez caught 93 passes for 930 yards and eight touchdowns this season. For his efforts, the respected veteran made his 13th Pro Bowl team, the most selections by a tight end in NFL history.
"He's still one of those guys – he's effective," Davis said. "He's helping that team and from the looks of him, he's taking care of his body and doing the right things."
Gonzalez led the Falcons with 93 receptions, even with standout receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones earning several targets from Pro Bowl passer Matt Ryan. Gonzalez also caught a touchdown in Atlanta's Divisional Playoff win over the Seattle Seahawks last week. He finished the game with six receptions for 51 yards.
"It's rare you see a guy at the tight end position play as long as he's been playing," Davis said of Gonzalez, the only tight end in NFL history with 90-plus receptions in five seasons.
Davis, on the other hand, appreciates what players like Gonzalez did to revolutionize the tight end position.
"I'd love to play as long as he's been playing and help my team win," Davis shared.
Athletes like Davis have been able to thrive at the position in both the run and pass game. But what makes Davis more unique is his ability to contribute on every single offensive snap, either in a pass route or as a blocker.
Davis caught 41 passes for 548 yards and five touchdowns in the regular season. Statistics aside, Davis impacted the 49ers significantly in the running game where he played a role in helping Frank Gore reach the 1,000-yard mark for the sixth time in eight seasons.
Davis continued impacting the 49ers in last week's win.
In San Francisco's 45-31 Divisional Playoff win over the Green Bay Packers, Davis hauled in a perfectly thrown over-the-shoulder reception for a 44-yard gain. With the long grab, Davis became the most productive tight end in his first three postseason games. The 49ers tight end has totaled 336 receiving yards in three postseason games (due in large part to his breakout postseason a year ago), the most by a tight end in his first three playoff games.
Davis also was dominant in run blocking against the Packers. The unit produced 323 rushing yards, the best single-game rushing effort in 49ers postseason history.
The pass-catching prowess of the respected 49ers tight end could come into greater focus against Atlanta's 23rd ranked pass defense, a unit that allowed 242.4 passing yards per game. The Falcons also allowed 385 passing yards in their 30-28 Divisional Playoff win over the Seattle Seahawks.
Davis was watching the game intently; especially when Seahawks tight end Zach Miller repeatedly found openings in Atlanta's defense.
Miller finished the game with a game-high eight receptions for 142 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.
"It was nice," Davis said of Miller's big outing. "I just hope it opens up for me."
In the mind of the 49ers tight end, Miller wasn't jammed at the line of scrimmage which allowed him to get off the line with a free release.
It turned out to hurt the Falcons.
"They just didn't watch him," Davis detailed. "He did a nice job of getting open."
Davis is hopeful more opportunities will come in the passing game, but he also understands that building chemistry with Colin Kaepernick takes time.
"It's been good," Davis said of their growing relationship. "When a new quarterback comes in you have to learn from him, adapt to him and start all over. That's what we've been doing, but it's been good because we've been winning."
Davis, an athletic specimen in his own right, respects the big arm and blistering speed Kaepernick provides. He also enjoys the leadership being displayed from a young quarterback with eight starts under his belt.
"I definitely respect him," Davis said of Kaepernick, this week's Sports Illustrated cover subject, who is 6-2 as a starter with 16 touchdowns (12 passing and 4 rushing). "He's done some awesome things here. For him to come out here and do what he's done, I definitely have to take my hat off to him… He's doing a great job."
Davis fully supports his quarterback as he enters his second consecutive NFC title game appearance.
This time around, however, Davis sees it as an even bigger game.