FOXBORO — It seems so innocent at the time, the kind of sight you see on nearly every play of any football game.
On Baltimore’s second possession of the game, Patriots ace cover man Aqib Talib made a nice play to knock a pass away from receiver Anquan Boldin, then walked off the field with a hint of a limp.
He did not lay on the field writhing in pain. There was no cart and, in fact, he didn’t even need to be helped off the field. There was just a bit of a hitch in his step as he made his way to the Pats’ bench.
Surely, Talib would only miss a few plays and would be back on the field on the next possession, right?
Certainly, after jogging back onto the field after a brief trip to the locker room, shoulder pads still intact, Talib would be primed to return to the field and again lead the Patriots’ pass defense. And even if he didn’t, the absence of a player that joined the team at the trading deadline wouldn’t be the end of the world, right?
As it turns out, Talib never did return last night, and his absence proved to be a major reason why the Patriots are cleaning out their lockers today instead of making plays for a trip to New Orleans.
With Talib, the dynamic — if a bit troubled — defensive back, stuck on the sidelines with a thigh injury, Joe Flacco, Anquan Boldin and the Baltimore passing attack carved up the Patriots’ lackluster backfield for three second-half touchdowns on the way to a 28-13 victory in the AFC Championship Game last night.
Super Bowl gone, title No. 4 for Brady gone. Ray Lewis retirement party delayed for two more weeks.
“You never want to see someone go down, but we had to keep playing,” said Patriots safety Steve Gregory. “Whoever is out there has to step up and make the plays to give ourselves a chance to win. After the loss of Aqib we didn’t do that.”