NFC duel highlights league's best TEs

IRVING, Texas -- In playing such a specialized position, tight end, Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten are considered among the best in the game.

Combined they have 1,396 receptions and 16,401 yards. Since 2006, Gonzalez has caught the most passes by any tight end with 291; Witten is second at 269.

On Sunday, at the new Cowboys Stadium, Gonzalez's Atlanta Falcons meet Witten's Dallas Cowboys in an important NFC contest that could affect playoff pairings down the line.

This will be just the second time the two play on the same field at the same time. In 2005, Witten's third year in the league, he caught seven passes for 93 yards and a touchdown in a victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. Gonzalez had five catches for 94 yards for the Chiefs that day.

Gonzalez, in his 13th season, sets the standard at his position.

He's athletic, with good hands, and he uses his 6-foot-5 frame and 243 pounds to shield defenders as he catches the ball. His speed allowed him to become the NFL's all-time leader in receptions (939), yards (11,207) and touchdowns (79) among tight ends. The numbers are astonishing for a player who entered the league in 1997 and went his first three seasons without a 100-yard receiving game.

"I think my goal [was] to play around eight years," Gonzalez said. "When I first got into the league and as you put the seasons together, you get lucky. Obviously, I've stayed pretty much healthy. It's just been a dream come true as far as I'm concerned."

Gonzalez earned 10 Pro Bowl appearances in 12 seasons with the Chiefs. But on April 23, 2009, the Chiefs, with a new coach and general manager, decided they wanted to purge some of their veteran players. Gonzalez was traded to the Falcons for a second-round pick in the 2010 draft.

He was coming off consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in Kansas City, including a 10-touchdown effort in 2008. Yet the losses were wearing on him. Kansas City had lost 26 of 32 games in his past two seasons there.

"Obviously to be on a winning team again [is great]. The last couple of years out there in Kansas City, it's tough," he said. "That is the toughest thing I've ever gone through, but it's a learning experience that you appreciate. Right now to be 4-1, I'm not satisfied with it, but that's something I haven't been in a long time, but it feels great."

This season, Gonzalez is 11th among tight ends with 23 catches for 267 yards and three touchdowns. However, Gonzalez leads NFC tight ends with 17 first-down receptions.

Gonzalez's situation is similar to Witten's at this stage of the season.

The tight ends are blocking more as their teams use the running game as a way to establish their offenses.

Witten leads the Cowboys in catches with 28 and is seventh among tight ends in the league. He hasn't had a big impact in the passing game, especially in the red zone, where the Cowboys have seven touchdowns in 15 attempts.

But Witten is still a primary weapon in the offense. Wide receiver Patrick Crayton said Witten is the first option on offense because he's able to take advantage of the middle of the field where he faces one-on-one coverage with a linebacker or safety.

This season, he's been blanketed by both, and his numbers are lower than he would like.

"I'm sure there's some bracket coverage," Witten said. "You can't look at that as an excuse or anything, but anytime those underneath routes are there, we're pretty creative in some of the things we do. It's hard [for a defense] to say 'Hey, we're going to take him out as a tight end,' because there's so much movement [in our offense]."

While there are other up-and-coming tight ends, such as the San Diego Chargers' Antonio Gates, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Kellen Winslow and the Indianapolis Colts' Dallas Clark, Witten is the closest to Gonzalez's career numbers among active players.

Witten, a five-time Pro Bowler himself, has met Gonzalez in Hawaii and at other league functions, and a mutual respect has developed.

"Ever since I got in the league, he's the one guy I've always admired," Witten said. "He's set the standard."

"Jason, in my opinion, he's the best tight end in the NFL," Gonzalez said.

On Sunday in Arlington, for at least one game, we get to find out.

Calvin Watkins covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at calvin.watkins@espn3.com.