FOXBOROUGH, Mass.— There’s no official stat for these things, but it’s a fair bet this was the longest Stephon Gilmore had ever waited after a game to hit the showers. The Patriots had just made their eighth Super Bowl this century, and one of the reasons this time was New England cornerback Gilmore (and his right hand), who will be playing in his first.
On a fourth-and-15 with 1:35 to play and the Jaguars trailing by four, Blake Bortles stepped up in the pocket and lofted a pass some 30 yards down the field to receiver Dede Westbrook. Just a few plays earlier, Gilmore had given up a 29-yard pass to Westbrook, which advanced Jacksonville into New England territory. But on this play, Gilmore was playing the ball in the air just right, timing his leap and using all of his wing span to swat the pass out of the air.
The score would turn final: Patriots 24, Jaguars 20.
An hour later, after the distribution of the AFC champion hats and T-shirts, and the awarding of the Lamar Hunt Trophy, Gilmore was still standing at his locker. He was describing the play—“I just kind of knew it was coming,” he said—and his technique—“Coach always tells us, don’t even worry about the receiver, go get the ball”—when a former Patriot, Willie McGinest, called out in his direction.
“Confettiland baby!” McGinest called out. “They call this Confettiland, right?”
“Yeah,” Gilmore said, a smile peeking through. “You’re right.”
It was fitting that Gilmore, a free-agent signing this spring, and Phillip Dorsett, traded to New England in September, helped make two of the critical plays in this game. Dorsett was on the receiving end of the tricky flea-flicker midway through the fourth, setting up a Patriots touchdown that helped close the Jaguars’ lead to three. They are the latest cogs in a machine that has churned with little interruption for 18 seasons.
At the same time, there were plenty of ways in which this win was not business as usual. Tom Brady played with stitches in his throwing hand, holding together a long wound that snaked down into his palm, after a collision in practice just four days earlier. “We’ll see,” he’d said on Friday when asked if he’d play, while carefully shrouding any details of his injury. After the game: “I said, ‘We’ll see,’ ” Brady said, while accepting the trophy. “So how’d it go?”
Or take Bill Belichick, who was clapping vigorously; raising his arm in the air with a “woo!” and then locking soon-to-be-gone defensive coordinator Matt Patricia into an awkward squeeze when the game was won.
“It’s emotional,” says special teams ace Matthew Slater, a fixture of this team for a decade. “You never know how many of these opportunities you’re going to get.”
Perhaps a better way to say it is: You never know how many more of these opportunities you are going to get. Belichick, Brady and the Patriots will try for their sixth ring in two weeks. Belichick is 65; Brady is 40; and both coordinators, Patricia and Josh McDaniels, are headed for head coaching jobs at season’s end. Before kickoff, owner Robert Kraft acknowledged the gist of an ESPN report about turmoil in the organization by telling NFL Network, by saying, “everybody’s got to get their egos checked in and try to hold it together.”
But on this evening, this was a prototypical Patriots win. They started off the season, 2-2, but figured out a way to put the parts together on defense. They lost Julian Edelman in training camp, Rob Gronkowski in the first half, but turned to Danny Amendola (seven catches, 84 yards, two touchdowns). Dion Lewis fumbled early in the fourth quarter; he made the game-clinching first down to run out the clock, at the end. These adjustments, compensations, redirections are expected in Confettiland.
“No one wants to see us win, because they feel like we win too much,” says linebacker Marquis Flowers, traded from Cincinnati to New England in August. “That’s not our fault. I just got here; I know how hard we work. This is a new team, a different team from last year, a different team from any year.”
The same but different, a fact reinforced by the lasting image from Gillette Stadium being of the famously unemotional Belichick, being emotional, for whatever reason.
“It was good to see it; I don’t know,” said backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. “It was good to see that on everybody’s faces. It was just elation.”
After the trophy celebration, the Patriots came off the field to the sound of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It was either a not-so-subtle nod to the subject that had consumed New England and football nation for days leading up to Sunday, or maybe a tribute to how this team works together, season after season, with new players arriving all the time. Whatever the case, it was a fitting way to move on to the Super Bowl.
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