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JIMMY GRAHAM LINES UP TO THE LEFT of the formation and at the snap darts up the seam, splitting two Giants defenders. After 10 yards, Graham makes a hard turn over his right shoulder, back toward quarterback Drew Brees, as if running a curl route. But then he takes off up the left sideline. The flurry of moves leaves veteran safety Deon Grant covering air. Brees hits his tight end in stride, and Graham flies into the end zone for a 29-yard TD. As the Saints celebrate their 35-10 third-quarter lead on Monday Night Football in Week 12, an amazed Jon Gruden in the ESPN booth says, "I've never seen a big guy run a route like that."

Not long ago, even as Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates were racking up
1,000-yard seasons, the average tight end remained an offensive afterthought, an extra blocker who snagged occasional short passes. But this season, six of the NFL's 25 most-targeted receivers are tight ends, and seven had cracked the top 25 in receptions through Week 15. Tight ends now average 15.6 more receiving yards per game than they did just three years ago. And if you're looking for a common thread among playoff teams, consider this: Of the first seven to clinch playoff berths -- the Patriots, Steelers, Texans, Ravens, Packers, Saints and 49ers -- each had a tight end on pace for 700 yards; two had TEs headed for the record books. Graham had a shot at surpassing the single-season marks for catches (102) and yards (1,290), and Patriots second-year star Rob Gronkowski had already broken the season record for TDs at the position (15 through 14 games).