NEW ORLEANS — Two elite NFL tight ends with college basketball backgrounds treated a sellout crowd Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to a game of “anything you can do, I can do better.’’
In the end, Jimmy Graham and his New Orleans Saints emerged victorious against Tony Gonzalez and the previously undefeated Atlanta Falcons 31-27, but the two played to a virtual standoff for 60 minutes.
For the record, Graham caught seven passes for a career-high 146 yards and two touchdowns, and Gonzalez countered with a game-high 11 catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns.
It is the first time since Oct. 4, 2009, that two tight ends have had multiple touchdown receptions in the same game (Heath Miller, Pittsburgh; Antonio Gates, San Diego).
Gonzalez, a likely first-ballot inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame once he becomes eligible, increased his career touchdown reception total to 101 to become the eighth player in NFL history to crack the century mark.
“(Gonzalez) is the ageless wonder,’’ Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “It’s unbelievable what he’s been able to do for so long and just continue to do at such a high level.
“You can see the chemistry between him and (Atlanta quarterback) Matt Ryan; it’s impressive.’’
It’s equally impressive that Gonzalez (6-5, 247) still can dunk a football over a 10-foot crossbar at the age of 36, in the middle of his 16th NFL season.
It is a move that Graham (6-7, 265) also performs routinely after scoring a touchdown. Each played college basketball; Graham at the University of Miami and Gonzalez at Cal.
“This past year at the Pro Bowl, Jimmy and Tony were the two tight ends (for the NFC),’’ Brees said. “It was like the older version, and the younger version, the young basketball player who’s now coming up and following in his footsteps.
“It was funny. The one comment I remember Tony making to Jimmy was, ‘I used to be able to dunk over the (crossbar), too. That used to be my deal. Then, one day, I went up there and it just wasn’t happening. So there’s going to be a time when you go up to dunk and it just isn’t happening. Take advantage of the opportunities you’ve got until then.’”
Graham took advantage of nearly every opportunity afforded him Sunday, catching all but one pass targeted for him. He caught scoring passes of 29 and 14 yards but his biggest catch might have been a 46-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter that led to a Garrett Hartley 31-yard field goal and a 31-27 lead.
Gonzalez caught touchdown passes of 2 and 6 yards in the second half, helping the Falcons stay within striking distance.
He dropped a potential first-down catch on fourth down with 12 seconds remaining, preventing the Falcons from attempting a “Hail Mary’’ at game’s end.
“Gonzalez paved the way for me,’’ said Graham, 25. “It seemed like I’m going up against the things he did the last drive. It is definitely something that motivates me. No tight end plays the game like he does. It’s simply amazing that he’s done it for this long.’’
Each player appears headed to the Pro Bowl again based on their numbers through the first nine games. Gonzalez has 61 receptions for 617 yards and six scores, and Graham has 45 catches for 533 yards and seven touchdowns.
The teams will meet again in prime time on Nov. 29 at the Georgia Dome, setting up a rematch of dueling tight ends.
“Gonzalez doesn’t run like he used to, but he’s savvy,’’ Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “He just plays basketball with you. There were a couple of times I had to swallow my pride today when he was making plays.
“It’ll be a lot easier on us when he finally retires. Right now, he’s always a tough matchup for us. But you know what? After him, another Jimmy Graham-esque kind of guy will come along that we’ll have to play against.’’