By David Willis
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.”
Much has been said about the boost Talib gave the Patriots’ struggling second secondary when he arrived in November. That he brought not just athleticism and skills, but a certain “swag,” or attitude to a Pats defense that needed it.
Last night, Talib spent the first two drives of the day locking up on either former Pro Bowl receiver Boldin or speedy second-year man Torrey Smith, who torched the pre-Talib Pats in Baltimore earlier in the season.
He had outstanding coverage on a deep ball to Smith, then made the impressive knockdown on Boldin on the play that he left the game.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, the next time anyone saw Talib, the injured corner was wearing a jacket instead of a helmet, and he never went further than the sidelines.
With the cocky cover guy hurt, the Patriots were forced to rely on Alfonzo Dennard, Marquice Cole and Kyle Arrington to man the corner back positions and corner-turned safety Devin McCourty to help out in coverage.
And the result, as anyone who has seen those four lackluster names in action could have guessed, was not good.
The often maligned Flacco took the Patriots apart drive after drive, making it appear almost too easy. He ended the day 21-of-36 passing for 240 yards and the three scores — 179 of the yards and all of the TDs after halftime.
Without Talib to match up against the impressive duo of receivers, Boldin hit for two TDs and 60 yards receiving, Smith had 69 receiving yards and tight end Dennis Pitts made five grabs for 55 yards and a score.
Boldin’s score was right in McCourty’s face, and Pitta’s was a total lapse in coverage that allowed the tight end to run free up the seam.
“We just got out-played,” said McCourty. “It always hurts you when a starter like Aqub goes out. You practice to get guys in there, but it’s hard to replace Aqib. It came down to execution and we didn’t execute.”
As the game wore on, and the Patriots were in desperate need of a stop, Flacco and Co. kept managing key first downs, running the clock while all Talib could do was watch from the bench.
No was was about to anoint Talib the next Deion Sanders, or even the next Ty Law. But without their top guy — and the skills and swagger he brings — the iffy Pats secondary was again exposed, and the cost was a trip to the Super Bowl.
“I’m not over there defensively so I can’t really comment on the game play,” said special teams wiz Matt Slater. “But obviously, losing Aqib in a game of this magnitude is going to throw a wrench into your plans. I know he wanted to be out there and I knew he was doing everything he could to get back out on the field. But things like that happen.”