The drama and tension in last season’s AFC Championship game was so thick, it was as if Edgar Allen Poe had penned the script himself.
And why not? After all, wasn’t he the master of macabre irony?
And isn’t it the least bit ironic that the two players involved in the pivotal play of that game – Patriots’ Cornerback Sterling Moore and Ravens’ Wide Receiver Lee Evans – are nevermore…
…at least not with these teams – but these teams are more or less intact from their Title clash last January, the veterans a year older and the youngsters a year wiser – with the greatest difference on either team being a would-be castoff that has helped transform a Patriots secondary from something desolate and terrible to championship caliber, just as fearsome a group as the aging Ravens’ vanquishers.
Aqib Talib is brash, a side-effect of confident defiance. The deal that Bill Belichick made with Tampa Bay to acquire the troubled – perhaps immature – yet supremely talented cornerback highlighted not only the desperation of the Patriots, but also the desire of the Buccaneers to get some sort of value for the former 1st round draft pick, who was under suspension from the league at the time of the deal.
Some were wary of the deal, others cautiously optimistic. The price that the Patriots paid for Talib – a 4th round draft pick in the upcoming 2013 draft – could easily be compensated through the Supplemental draft had Talib continued down a path of delinquency, plus they took Tampa’s 7th round pick, something that I wrote was “Advantage Patriots – no matter which way the door swings” in regard to his behavior.
But it’s been so far, so good with the Kansas product – and his impact has been everything the Patriots had hoped for, and then some.
And his stat line doesn’t even begin to tell the tale.
Talib is physical, he is brash and trusts his instincts and football IQ. In fact his meager looking statistics are a suggestion of how much respect Patriots opponents have for his abilities. He isn’t afraid of contact, as his collision with Houston’s Arian Foster in the Division round will attest, and has the hips and drive, the length and speed to take chances and be able to recover if he guesses wrong.
“He is a great corner. He is a playmaker,” said wide receiver Torrey Smith, who had his way with Denver’s Champ Bailey on Saturday, and will face Talib this Sunday, “He is more of a man-coverage guy, but they kind of do more zone stuff up there. I’m sure he is versatile and can do a little bit of both. It will be a nice challenge for us.”
Before Talib’s arrival, Belichick was shuffling things around constantly in the secondary. He brought in former Charger Steve Gregory to team with Patrick Chung as the starting safeties, then drafted Tavon Wilson as his nickle safety – but Chung slumped and he and Gregory were injured and out for several games early in the season…
…and when Belichick tried to compensate by throwing Wilson and fellow rookie Nate Ebner back as the last line of defense for the Patriots, it lasted exactly one game as the Seattle Seahawks took advantage of the inexperience and burned them on a game winning touchdown bomb as Sidney Rice easily split the inexperienced duo for an easy grab and a one point Seahawk victory.
Two weeks later, after coaching up his young safeties, Belichick tried it again and the St. Louis Rams burned them again with the exact same play – on their first drive of the game – and that was the impetus that started the process of bringing Talib to New England.
Once clear of the suspension for ingesting a banned substance – Talib was forced to miss the week 10 game against Buffalo before being eligible to return the following week – his presence instantly yielded results and allowed cornerback Devin McCourty to play his more natural Free Safety position, shifting Gregory to the Strong Safety and relegating Chung to the dime safety spot, essentially buried on the depth chart.
But bringing in Talib was only part of the solution in the secondary. With McCourty shifting to the back end where he excels, it left the corner opposite Talib to Kyle Arrington who was burnt so many times by the opposition’s #2 receivers that he found his way to the bench in favor of 7th round draft pick Alfonzo Dennard, another talented young corner saddled with legal hassles.
Dennard’s evolution to a legitimate man corner in the few weeks that followed was just that much more impressive, given that teams were steering clear of Talib and targeting him…and his play has caused many an expert to gush in regard to Dennard as clearly being the steal of the draft.
Dennard was a first round talent coming out of Nebraska, yet saw his stock and margin for error drop to nothing after he slugged a cop in the midst of a bar fight just weeks before the draft – which scared off every other team, but Belichick said he was comfortable with Dennard, and felt that the incident “Isn’t who he is”, and when he was still on the board as an afterthought, Belichick nabbed him.
Dennard’s and Talib’s body of work with the Patriots are very small samples, scientifically speaking, but there is enough evidence in the samples to suggest that this is a corner tandem that has the ability to shut down a passing game, particularly with ball hawks McCourty and Gregory roaming the back end and lending a hand.
This is clearly not the same secondary that Joe Flacco and Torrey Smith took behind the barn in Week 3 – in fact, both of these teams have evolved to being the two best teams in the American Football Conference, which their presence on the turf at Gillette Stadium this coming Sunday night will attest.
On that night in September, the Ravens proved to be the better team by a disputed field goal on the final play of the game…ominously ironic given that New England was the better team last January, that time by a missed field goal.
So recent history has shown us that, on any given Sunday, these teams are no better than each other, other than a field goal either way – so somethings gotta give…
…but chances are this time it’s not going to be the Patriots secondary.