FOXBOROUGH — Cornerback Stephon Gilmore has fond memories of the 2017 AFC Championship.
With the Patriots leading 24-20 and less than two minutes remaining against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Gilmore batted down a fourth-and-15 pass intended for wide receiver Dede Westbrook. A completion would have put the Jaguars inside New England’s 10-yard line. Instead, the breakup punched the Patriots’ ticket to Super Bowl LII.
Gilmore, however, isn’t relishing that picture-perfect moment ahead of this season’s conference championship game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
“It’s a new year,’’ he said at Gillette Stadium on Thursday. “You have to prove yourself every year, no matter which game, no matter what happened last week. You have to go out and play good football for your team.’’
With that in mind, Gilmore isn’t putting much stock in New England’s regular-season win over the Chiefs, either. A few things have changed since that October barn-burner — Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson was a healthy scratch and running back Kareem Hunt was a member of the Chiefs — but Gilmore stressed that Kansas City wields a bevy of offensive weapons to challenge New England’s defense.
“Everybody on their team is explosive and can make a play at any time,’’ he said.
At the top of the list is wide receiver Tyreek Hill.
Hill, who ranked fourth in the league in both receiving yards (1,479) and touchdowns (12) this season, poses a deep threat because of his tremendous speed. Against the Patriots in Week 6, he caught seven passes on 12 targets for 142 yards and three touchdowns. Although Gilmore acknowledged the difficulty in simulating Hill’s quickness, he said the scout team has a player mimicking the 24-year-old speedster in practice.
Gilmore wouldn’t confirm the individual’s identity, but one possibility is rookie cornerback Keion Crossen.
“I don’t want to say [who],’’ Gilmore said. “He’s fast, though.’’
But is he faster than Hill?
“Nope,’’ safety Patrick Chung said. “We’ve got a couple guys on our team that are fast, now, but maybe I’ll check them out in a race or something.’’
The Patriots also will have to contain tight end Travis Kelce, wide receiver Sammy Watkins, and running back Damien Williams, among others. Gilmore said it doesn’t matter whether he shadows Hill or another player.
“Whatever the coaches want me to do, that’s what I’ll do,’’ he said.
Chung also wouldn’t tip his hand about his matchup.
“That’s just a big secret,’’ he said.
The respect is mutual between Kelce and Rob Gronkowski.
“He’s a very excellent player,’’ Gronkowski said. “The way he can move, the savviness he has is second to none. The way he can go up on a defender and plant one way and go the other, at his size and his speed, that’s what makes a tight end special in the league.’’
Kelce returned the praise in Kansas City on Wednesday.
“I think he’s a hell of a player,’’ he said. “I cherish every game I get to go up against elite tight ends.’’
Kelce’s stats have overshadowed Gronkowski’s this season. Gronkowski, who missed a trio of games because of ankle and back woes, caught 47 passes for 682 yards and three touchdowns. Kelce was one of two tight ends to eclipse 100 receptions (103) and one of three to exceed 1,000 receiving yards (1,336).
“He’s a great player,’’ Gronkowski said. “You got to give it to him.’’
Though his numbers might not be where they once were, Gronkowski still contributes via his blocking — a skill showcased during the divisional round against the Los Angeles Chargers last week. And in practice, he’s able to help the defense prepare for the tall task of stopping Kelce and other tight ends.
“It definitely helps,’’ Chung said. “It’s two of the best. Two totally different, but two of the best. I mean, me and Rob go at it a lot. It’s definitely helped me in my eight, nine years with him. He’s made me a better player.’’
The Patriots once again had perfect attendance at practice, a common occurrence of late. There were no players on the injury report for Thursday’s session.
“It just makes practice that much easier and that much better,’’ Gronkowski said.
The Patriots have only entered two games, Super Bowls LI and LII, in the last five seasons without a player on their injury report.