FOXBORO, Mass. — Maligned by fans and media alike for the first month of his New England Patriots tenure, Stephon Gilmore made the biggest defensive play of the game Sunday to help send his team to Super Bowl LII.
With the Jacksonville Jaguars facing a fourth-and-15 down four with less than two minutes remaining in the AFC Championship Game, quarterback Blake Bortles uncorked a deep ball to wide receiver Dede Westbrook. Had they connected, Westbrook likely would have scored.
But thanks to Gilmore, they didn’t.
The $65 million cornerback ran stride for stride with the lightning-fast Westbook, elevated for the ball and swatted it away with his right hand. The Patriots took over on downs and ran out the clock to secure a 24-20 victory and a ticket to Minneapolis.
“It wasn’t the biggest play I’ve made,” Gilmore said after the game, “but it was definitely one of the most important.”
Gilmore, who was matched up on Westbrook for much of the game, said he had a feeling Bortles would target the rookie wideout on that pivotal play — and he knew what route Westbrook would run.
“They ran that play on me early in the game, and they didn’t throw it,” he said. “I just kind of knew it was coming, and I was able to make the play.”
As the ball hit the ground, Gilmore was mobbed by his fellow defensive backs, who steadfastly defended him during his brutal four-game stretch to begin the season.
“Oh my God,” cornerback Eric Rowe said. “I think I lost my voice.”
“(We’re) very proud, man,” cornerback Malcolm Butler said. “Steph is a hard worker, very smart football player. I learn from him, and he learns from me.”
Butler also recalled Gilmore breaking up a pass in similar fashion during his time with the Buffalo Bills. That one came at the Patriots’ expense.
“It reminded me of when he was with Buffalo and, I think, (former Patriots receiver) Brandon LaFell was going out for a pass,” Butler said. “Same bat-down. That’s his signature move, I guess.”
Gilmore was targeted five times Sunday. He allowed three catches for 48 yards and had two pass breakups, providing a steadying presence for a Patriots defense that struggled mightily in the first half. New England surrendered touchdowns on consecutive possessions in the second quarter but held the Jaguars to just two field goals after halftime.
“It ain’t always going to be great,” Gilmore said, words that could apply to Sunday’s game or his debut Patriots season as a whole. “You go through stuff. You’ve just got to keep working. And I’ve got great teammates to push me through it. We’re all on the same page and just having fun out there.”
Speaking of fun, after failing to even reach the playoffs in any of his five seasons in Buffalo, Gilmore now is headed to his first Super Bowl.
“Maybe when I lay down tonight, I’ll be like, ‘Man, I’m going to the Super Bowl,’ ” he said. “But this game don’t mean nothing if we don’t win it.”
Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images