Offseason acquisitions Stephon Gilmore, Brandin Cooks rise up on big stage

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Cornerback Stephon Gilmore and wide receiver Brandin Cooks were the New England Patriots' two big offseason acquisitions, and the two have become close friends over the past 10 months.

That they both delivered arguably their best performances in the Patriots' biggest game -- Sunday's 24-20 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship -- was one of the storylines of a memorable night at Gillette Stadium.

"That's my boy, that's my guy," the soft-spoken Gilmore said. "We came here together, and we hit it off when we first met. We always text when stuff happens and try to stay positive."

It hasn't always been positive on sports talk radio in New England when discussing the contributions of Gilmore and Cooks this season, mainly based on the high expectations they arrived with, considering what the team gave up to bring them aboard: a five-year, $65 million contract for Gilmore and a first-round pick to the New Orleans Saints in exchange for Cooks.

Many seemed to expect more, despite both players' assuming starting roles, but on Sunday, few could argue with their worth as they made critical plays in the victory.

Start with Gilmore, whose pass breakup on fourth-and-15 late in the fourth quarter essentially clinched the result. He called it the biggest play he has made in his career, which includes 40 games in college at South Carolina.

"Just the time I made it -- AFC Championship, biggest stage playing in the NFL," he said. "I've made plays like that before, but it's just the time I did it. I kind of anticipated the play a little bit and turned into the receiver. It's what our coaches always teach us -- to go find the ball -- and I was able to make a play."

One of the important aspects of that play was it came after Gilmore had been in coverage on a 29-yard pass play up the left sideline to move the Jaguars into New England territory.

"You just have to keep playing," he said. "He threw back shoulder, I got my head around, and he kind of threw it inside. It happens like that sometimes, especially when you play the way I play."

Meanwhile, Cooks finished with six catches for 100 yards, and when considering that he drew pass interference penalties of 32 and 36 yards against top-flight corners Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, that's 168 yards of total offense.

"Brandin made a bunch of big plays. He was huge for us," quarterback Tom Brady said. "We've talked a lot, and I have a lot of confidence and trust in him. He's an incredible player."

Cooks, who led the Patriots by playing 92.7 percent of the offensive snaps in the regular season and finished with 65 catches for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns, has long craved playing in such a big game and being counted on by Brady.

"We work for this. We grind," he said. "We practice and try to earn his trust, so it's great to be able to be in that position."

As for the connection between Cooks and Gilmore, it extends to the practice field.

"We push each other. He's hard to cover in practice," said the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Gilmore, who is known for his physical style of play. "He allows me to get ready for other receivers in the league. So we get better and better every day. He's a great player and great teammate.

"You go through stuff sometimes, and it's not always on the field -- it can be off the field. So it's just trying to stay positive, to have each other's back."

It's a dynamic that began to form 10 months ago, when they became teammates for the first time.

On Sunday, when the stakes couldn't have been higher, they rose up together to deliver some of their best work yet.