The Patriots were scuffling along earlier this season, having already lost to Arizona at home -- Arizona at home! --the Ravens and Seattle. At 3-3 after six games, were looking very ordinary and un-Patriots-like.
Looking to improve their much maligned secondary, the Patriots made a rare trading-deadline deal, acquiring cornerback Aqib Talib from the Buccaneers. The Patriots gave up a fourth-round pick in this April's draft, and got a seventh-rounder in return along with Talib, who is in the final year of his contract.
It's far too simple to say Talib is the reason the Patriots have gone 8-1 since he joined the team, but he certainly has made a difference.
The Patriots' pass defense still looks suspect on paper, finishing the season ranked 29th with about 271 passing yards allowed per game. But that total is probably inflated by the fact that the Patriots have frequently built huge leads, forcing opponents to pass on nearly every down.
"He’s got a real good skill set for the position outside," Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said on Monday as the Patriots began preparations to face the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday. "He’s got some speed ability. He’s long. He can be physical and tackle and do some of the things that we’re asking him to do so it’s been a real good experience for us."
Talib, 26, was a first-round draft pick in 2008 -- selected two picks after Joe Flacco -- but has had his share of off-field issues in the past. He had to miss his first Patriots game while completing a four-game suspension for unauthorized use of the prescription drug Adderall. But then he made his presence felt right away. In his first game for the Patriots, he intercepted Andrew Luck and returned it 59 yards for a score. That was the 19th career interception for the five-year veteran out of Kansas.
In a bit of irony for Ravens fans, Talib's signing essentially cost cornerback Sterling Moore his job; it was Moore who knocked that pass out of Lee Evans' hands in the waning moments of the AFC Championship Game last season.
The 6-foot-1 Talib suffered a hip injury in December against the Texans and sat out the regular-season finale, but returned against Houston in the Divisional Round and made a team-high 10 tackles. He drew the difficult task of defending Texans Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson, and it's likely he will be blanketing Torrey Smith this week.
“If you’re a cornerback and you don’t want to go after their best receiver, you’re in the wrong business," Talib said after the win over Houston last week.
"This is what you play football for," he added. "You don’t play football to play 16 and go home. You play to get in the tournament and try to get the trophy. We’re just going to go one week at a time and (now) Baltimore’s on the agenda.”