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Final 4 teams in NFL playoffs rely heavily on tight ends

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Few people proselytize about the importance of tight ends more than San Francisco's George Kittle.

He helped the NFL create a “holiday” to honor the position each October and launched the annual Tight End University where scores of players gather to share tips of the trade.

So Kittle showed no surprise about the fact that the four teams playing on championship weekend all rely heavily on the tight end in the passing game.

“That they do,” he said with a smile.

Whether it's a first-team All-Pro like Kittle or the record-setting, celebrity dating Travis Kelce of Kansas City or a prolific rookie like Detroit's Sam LaPorta — or Baltimore's dynamic duo of Mark Andrews and Isaiah Likely — tight ends will be a focal point of the offenses on Sunday.

“I feel like if you look back at most of the last Super Bowl winners, every team has a very, very talented tight end that they use, whether that's run game or the pass game," Kittle said. "Tight ends give you the ability to mismatch whether it's on linebackers or safeties. If you want to use two guys to cover them, it doesn’t matter. It opens up other people. If you have someone that can dominate the middle of the field, it makes it a lot easier on the quarterback.”

Kittle was the most productive player at the position this season with his 1,020 yards receiving leading the way among tight ends. He earned his second career first-team All-Pro selection.

While San Francisco has an offense filled with playmakers like Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, Kittle's ability to make big plays down the field in the passing game and dominate on the line of scrimmage as a blocker in the run game is a major part of the success.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for the way he plays the game, man,” said Lions coach Dan Campbell, a former NFL tight end. “He’s high energy, he does it all, he’s an aggressive blocker, he’s strong, he’s physical, he’s good in pass protection, he’s an explosive route runner, creates separation, run after catch, plays strong, team guy. I mean he does it all. He does it all. But I like our guy too and our guy can do quite a bit of things as well.”

LaPorta is the latest in a line of productive tight ends out of Iowa that followed Kittle's lead from college to the pros.

The second-round pick set a rookie playoff record for tight ends with nine catches last week and his 86 for the season also were the most ever for a rookie tight end. LaPorta also led all tight ends with 10 TD catches in the regular season.

The success comes as no surprise to Kittle, who saw those traits when LaPorta came to Tight End University this summer.

“He didn’t stand out in a way like, ‘Oh, this is a college kid.’ You could tell he understood what he was doing,” Kittle said. “He has an understanding of the game and what the Lions want from him. When you put him out there with Coach Campbell and their mindset, I think he fits the mold perfectly and kind of adds to that mold himself. He’s everything that you want in a tight end.”

While Kittle and LaPorta were the first and second-team All-Pros at the position this season, the AFC tight ends remaining have sterling credentials of their own.

Kelce received more press this season for dating Taylor Swift, but he has been one of the most productive tight ends ever, ranking in the top five all-time at the position in receptions (907), yards (11,328) and TDs (74).

The 34-year-old narrowly missed out on extending his own record of seven straight seasons with at least 1,000 yards when he rested in the season finale and fell 16 yards short.

He has been at his best in the playoffs as evidenced by his two TD catches last week and his receiving numbers that are only behind Jerry Rice all-time. He has formed a bond with Patrick Mahomes that has led to a playoff-record 16 touchdowns for the duo. Coach Andy Reid says they have the best chemistry he has seen in his more than three decades as a coach in the NFL.

“It's hard to explain why and how these guys connect like that but they do,” Reid said. “They both have great feel for the game and great feel for what the other one sees and will do.”

The Ravens have two tight ends featured prominently this season in the passing game. Andrews has been Lamar Jackson's favorite target since they arrived together in 2018, with five straight seasons with at least five TD catches.

But he got hurt midway through this season and Likely stepped up with five TD catches in the past six games.

Andrews was activated from injured reserve Friday, giving the Ravens two options at the position — a luxury missing from many of the teams that have already gone home this season.

“I think when you have a guy that can do everything, can do multiple jobs and do them well, I think those guys are hard to find,” Campbell said.

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AP Sports Writers Larry Lage, Dave Skretta and Noah Trister contributed to this report.

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