Despite playing on opposite sides of the ball, wide receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Stephon Gilmore have much in common, as both were key off-season acquisitions by the Patriots, both had successful careers prior to joining the team, and neither had played a postseason game prior to joining New England.
Gilmore, the 10th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills, had a closeup look at New England’s dominance while facing the team twice a year for the first five seasons of his career. The Bills went 2-8 against the Patriots in that stretch, their lone wins coming in a meaningless Week 17 game in 2014 (New England had already clinched home-field throughout the playoffs) and against a one-thumbed Jacoby Brissett during Tom Brady’s four-game suspension in 2016.
Gilmore was unfazed in his post-season debut last Saturday against the Tennessee Titans, not allowing a catch on any of the three balls thrown in his direction and coming up with one pass breakup. Marcus Mariota seemingly gave up on targeting receivers in Gilmore’s area code, the surest sign of a dominating performance from a cornerback.
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The highest-paid free agent (five years, $65 million) in team history, Gilmore said he had no nerves prior to facing off against the Titans.
“Nah, I was just anxious to get out there and play and fly around,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be out there in the playoffs. It’s very hard to get there and it’s fun being out there.”
Cooks was picked 20th overall in the 2014 draft and wallowed through three straight 7-9 seasons with the New Orleans Saints before New England sent a 2017 first-round draft pick to the Bayou for him.
New Orleans was never alive for a postseason spot after Week 16 in any of Cooks’ three seasons there, making New England’s 35-14 win over Tennessee the first time in his career he’s played in a game with two true outcomes: survive and advance, or be eliminated.
“At the end of the day, it’s win or go home,” said Cooks, who finished 11th in the NFL with 1,082 receiving yards this season. “That’s the biggest difference right there.”
Each player now finds themselves one win from an appearance on the biggest stage of all, the Super Bowl.
Matthew Slater, the Patriots’ special teams captain, is one of four players on the roster (Brady, Devin McCourty, Stephen Gostkowski) to appear in each of the last six AFC Championship Games. The 10-year veteran said it’s important for both the newcomers and those with prior experience to remember that at the end of the day, it’s still just football.
“Don’t let the game get too big for you, don’t overthink it,” Slater offered. “At the same time, you want to do everything you can over the course of the week preparation-wise to make sure that when you go out there on game day, you can play with a lot of confidence, play fast and play so that you have no regrets.”
Gilmore and Cooks appear to be properly heeding Slater’s advice, buying into what has made New England the preeminent program in the league for nearly two decades.
So is fellow newcomer Marquis Flowers, who does have one career playoff game in his archives with the Cincinnati Bengals. Even if he’s in uncharted waters as far as his career goes, he appears to be so locked in on Jacksonville that he won’t even mention what would be the end result of a Patriots win by name.
“We ain’t even thinking about them two words right now,” Flowers said, referring to the Super Bowl.
Cooks said he hasn’t given a thought to what lies ahead after this week, either, nor have any other members of the Patriots. The team isn’t looking past the Jaguars, who Cooks said is the best team the Patriots will have played all year.
“We’re out here grinding,” Cooks said. “We know what the opportunity at hand is right now so, we’re not taking that lightly. We’re coming in here and working and we know we’re getting ready for a great team. This is going to be the best team that we played all year, so we’re really excited about that.”
“I’m just trying to focus on the day-to-day, practicing, trying to get ready and focusing on myself and communicating with my teammates,” Gilmore said. “I’m trying to take it day by day and do whatever I can during the week to focus on the game.”
Maintaining that focus will help ensure that Gilmore and Cooks not only cross making the playoffs off of their to-do lists, but making it all the way to Super Bowl LII as well.
For a team that’s been here before and was expected to be here again, the new guys aren’t taking their roles lightly.
“It’s hard to get to this position, so you’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity and go out and do whatever you can to help the team win,” Gilmore said.
“It’s another opportunity to go out here and play,” Cooks said. “This is what you ask for and now it’s time to show up.”