ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Among tight ends this season, only Antonio Gates is in ‘ class when it comes to touchdown receptions. But given Gates’ body of work in the last dozen seasons, it’s only fair to say that Thomas is in Gates’ class.

Thomas continues to earn respect, and leads the league with nine touchdown receptions. But Gates, eight years older, has long since banked a boundless stash of credibility — and is right behind Thomas for scores by tight ends, with seven.

“He’s hard to stop,” said Broncos safety Rahim Moore. “I don’t know one person since I’ve been in the NFL that’s stopped him, literally.”

Gates has not carved up defenses since the dawn of time; it only seems that way. Nevertheless, it is difficult to envision the Chargers without their stalwart tight end. His career is so lengthy that the quarterback who threw him his first NFL touchdown pass celebrates his 52nd birthday Thursday. That is Doug Flutie, and the 4-yard scoring toss to Gates on Nov. 9, 2003 was a baby step that began a sprint destined to lead to Canton, Ohio.

Peaks and valleys met Gates along the way. He missed 10 games in the 2010-12 seasons, and his per-catch average and big-play output fell along with the Chargers’ team-wide fortunes. Whispers of a decline grew.

But through the undulations of his career, Gates dissected the Broncos. Since he entered the league, no player has more receptions (71), receiving yardage (906) and receiving touchdowns (six) against them than the former Kent State basketball standout.

And as was the case for quarterback Philip Rivers, the arrival of former Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy reinvigorated Gates’ career. His 77 receptions last year were his most since 2009, and his 11 receptions of at least 20 yards were the …read more