FOXBORO, Mass. — Earlier this season, Devin McCourty felt the ire of Patriots nation. Every move he made, every play he was on the field — which was almost all of them — the watchful eye of Patriots fans everywhere was scrutinizing him.
That extreme examination hasn’t subsided completely, but each week McCourty has slowly chipped away at the negative perception surrounding him. And on Sunday, he may have finally escaped it for good.
As the fourth quarter began, with a 10-point lead in hand, the Patriots turned to their defense to close out a seemingly easy win in front of the home crowd at Gillette Stadium. But where the rest of the defense crumbled, McCourty excelled.
McCourty forced a Fred Jackson fumble inside the Patriots two-yard line early in the fourth quarter, helping keep the Bills at arms length in a two-score game. Then on the final drive, he saved the day once more.
With a little under 30 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and the Bills driving inside the Patriots 15-yard line, McCourty dropped back into coverage and read Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick‘s eyes. The cornerback turned safety then moved into position and hauled in the game-clinching interception to secure New England’s 37-31 win.
“Yeah, that was one of those right place, right time moments right there,” McCourty said after the game. “The ball [was] thrown right to me, so just making the catch and ending it was my focus at that time.”
McCourty’s been faced with similar challenges in the past, but has had difficulty consistently rising to the occasion. Faced with such a challenge on Sunday, though, McCourty proved to be the Patriots’ biggest playmaker — a title no one would have even considered just six weeks ago.
That McCourty, a much earlier and more primitive version of course, dropped a pair of easy would-be interceptions and drew a blatant pass interference call that ultimately sealed a Patriots loss in Baltimore. It was arguably McCourty’s darkest hour since entering the NFL.
On Sunday, McCourty was busy sealing up another victory. Only this time, it was for his own team. The once promising Pro Bowl cornerback, plagued by a sophomore slump of unprecedented proportions, has atoned for his errors in his switch to the safety position, fortifying the Patriots secondary with size, athleticism, smarts and ball skills. All characteristics the Patriots have lacked back there since the days of Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law and even Asante Samuel.
McCourty has prided himself on forcing turnovers during his three seasons in the NFL. He understands the impact turnovers can have on a game, and has built up a propensity for forcing them.
“Yeah, we know no matter what happens in the game, there’s nothing bigger than turnovers,” McCourty said. “A lot of times if you can just win that turnover ratio, you end up winning the game. We know each game we have to go out and win the turnover ratio. No matter what happens in the game, we have to come out on top with the turnover ratio.
“We know when the game gets toward the end, those big plays, they change the game, they end up winning games at the end,” McCourty added. “As well as we want to play with yards and everything, we know at the end of the game, if you can make a big play, get a big turnover, get a big stop, that changes the game.”
The Patriots’ turnover ratio is among the best in football, tied with the Bears with a plus-16 on the season after adding three to their total on Sunday. While McCourty has only forced four of the Patriots’ 23 turnovers this season, his improved play, especially since switching positions, has been a big factor in that success.
Now, with the added responsibility of organizing the defense already lingering, McCourty is also undertaking the coveted title of playmaker in the Patriots defense. A need the Patriots have been pining after for some time, and one McCourty should fill perfectly.