In all sports, player contracts are always a popular storyline when it comes to the more expensive ones. Especially if the player in question did not, in fact, Earn His Money™. But when it comes to winning pivotal playoff games, it usually just takes a single play for a guy to be worth every proverbial penny.
Stephon Gilmore just made the $40 million play of his life.
Signed to a surprise five-year contract out of nowhere to kick off the Patriots eventful offseason, Gilmore's $65 million deal (including $40 million guaranteed) immediately put a big green target on his back. It made it much easier for plenty of media members and fans to criticize him when he played poorly. And to be sure, he did have an up-and-down first season in New England. It's fair to point out when he falters.
But Gilmore certainly did not stumble against the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game. Instead, he made one of the most spectacular plays of the day when he broke up Blake Bortles' fourth-down pass with just 1:53 left in the fourth quarter. The play had a real chance of being completed, but Gilmore took it away.
And with that one pass breakup, Gilmore earned every last cent of that guaranteed $40 million. He's one of several new faces who stepped up big-time for the Patriots in their AFC Championship win, which in some circles will read like a redemption tale.
Gilmore's fourth-down stop showed why the Patriots signed him in the first place. They needed his size, length, and athleticism in the secondary. He showed it off in spades with that one play. He made one of the biggest defensive plays in Patriots history and spawned an opportunity for some fairly iconic photos.
The former Buffalo Bills corner downplayed the nature of his fourth-down play, but couldn't diminish its significance in the game.
"It wasn’t the biggest plays I’ve made, but it was definitely one of the most important," Gilmore told reporters after the game. 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."
Cooks Gets Cooking
Gilmore wasn't the only Patriots newcomer to deliver a revelatory performance in the AFC Championship Game. Receiver Brandin Cooks came up with six catches for 100 yards after being a virtual non-factor last week. It was the first 100-yard game of Cooks' postseason career.
The former Saints wideout did have a key drop in the third quarter that stalled out a Patriots drive when they had a real chance to tie the game at 17. But he certainly redeemed himself after that with two catches in the fourth quarter.
The second one was particularly crucial, as Cooks jump-started the first of two late touchdown drives when he made an 18-yard catch on a comeback route. On the whole, he did a good job of getting separation with Jaguars All-Pro cornerback A.J. Bouye all over him for most of the afternoon and took advantage when the Jags secondary gave him too much space to operate.
Cooks felt great to earn Brady's trust in a short time to find so many targets (eight in all, not including penalties) in such a big game.
"We work for this. We grind," said Cooks. "We practice and try to earn his trust, so it’s great to be able to be in that position."
It's the kind of play a Tom Brady receiver needs to make, especially in crunch time. And Cooks deserves credit for helping spark that drive with his catch, which was quickly overshadowed by Danny Amendola's third-and-18 play and Phillip Dorsett's eye-popping grab on a flea-flicker.
Speaking of Dorsett...
Yeah, how about that play? Here's a guy who came over in a trade from the Colts for Jacoby Brissett - already under a microscope. And he rarely got opportunities to make plays as he sat near the bottom of the Patriots' pecking order. For most of the 2017 season, Dorsett looked like a zero-sum addition. But Tom Brady still looked his way in one of the most crucial moments of the AFC Championship Game, and on that one flea-flicker Dorsett took one step toward justifying the trade forever.
The ex-Colts wideout appreciated the mere chance to play a small part in the Patriots' latest improbable comeback.
"I was just trying to make a play on the ball, and thank God I came down with it," said Dorsett. "We scored on the drive and we were rolling after that, so I just wanted to be able to spark the team. We just got the ‘W’ and I’m just happy. I can’t even explain what’s going on – it’s crazy."
Of course, there's still a job to finish. If the Patriots can't finish the season off and fall short to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII, it will take some of the shine off the way Gilmore, Cooks, and Dorsett played in the AFC Championship Game. But just to get the Pats to the big game is an accomplishment in itself, and most importantly they proved capable of coming up with big-time plays in big-time situations.
Just have to do that one more time.
-- By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].