AFC championship: Stephon Gilmore overcomes early season doubts to make huge play

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When the New England Patriots signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million contract, the move was met with surprise. The Patriots rarely make splashy signings on the first day of free agency, leaving other teams to win the offseason.

And when Gilmore struggled mightily over the first month of the regular season, the notorious Boston sports radio stations were having a field day, both hosts and callers, who couldn’t believe the Patriots had spent so much money on a guy who was so bad.

But sometime in October, the New England defense started getting better – and so did Gilmore.

On Sunday night, with the Patriots finally having reclaimed the lead in the AFC title game, 24-20, but with the Jaguars driving, Gilmore made the play of the game, and likely of his career.

The Jaguars were facing fourth-and-15 with 1:53 to play, starting from the New England 43. Blake Bortles threw for Dede Westbrook deep down the right sideline, and Gilmore made a tremendous play, leaping, stretching out and knocking the ball away.

Just like that, all was forgiven. The crowd at Gillette Stadium went bananas. Barring a catastrophe, Gilmore had sealed the Patriots’ third Super Bowl trip in the last four years.

Not this time: Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore’s diving pass break-up helped seal New England’s win over Jacksonville. (AP)

Safety Duron Harmon, one of the Patriots’ captains this season, ran to Gilmore and jumped on his shoulders, ecstatic for his teammate.

“That’s my guy, man,” Harmon said. “Seeing how he’s settled into this defense, it’s amazing. He got a lot of [criticism], but he ignored the noise and he put in the work.”

Gilmore, who spent the first five seasons of his career with Buffalo and is in the postseason for the first time, seemed to downplay things when he said the pass break-up wasn’t the biggest play of his career, but “it was definitely the most important. I go out there and try to make plays for my teammates. I have great teammates and my coaches put me in a position to go out there and make plays.”

Last year, his final season with the Bills, their record wasn’t terrible – they were 7-9 – but there was a lot of turmoil down the stretch, as head coach Rex Ryan was fired with a game to play.

Fellow defensive back Devin McCourty has been through exactly what Gilmore endured earlier this year – a late first-round draft pick in 2010, he initially played cornerback, and was a Pro Bowler as a rookie. But his second season, he struggled and was roundly criticized; later, he was moved to his more natural position, safety, and has been a stalwart there since for New England.

McCourty is big on making sure the defensive backs are a tight-knit group, and he made sure Gilmore understood that the group would get better, and his tough days would get better.

“We’ve gotten so tight as a group. When Steph was going through that, we were like, ‘Bro, we don’t care. It’s not just Steph, it’s not just Dev, it’s not Du [Harmon] – we’re going to get through it together.’ We demanded a lot of each other, we were in the film room Wednesdays and Thursdays,” McCourty said.

Gilmore did give up some other plays in the game, but McCourty and his teammates knew they’d be tested by the Jaguars, but reminded each other that giving up one pass meant they’d just make the next play that came their way.

Gilmore did.