EDITOR'S NOTE: This week, independent analyst Andrew Mason will take a closer look at five players to watch in this Sunday's AFC Championship Game. Second on the list: Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib.*
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --*The Broncos and Patriots share more than just a ticket to the AFC Championship Game and the presence of future Hall of Famers at quarterback. Their defenses share the same problem: they've been reshuffled beyond recognition because of injuries, particularly in the front seven.
The issues have been less pressing on the back end, where safety Devin McCourty has started 17 times this season, including the playoffs, and cornerback Aqib Talib has made 14 starts. But Talib missed three games with a hip injury that appeared to affect him upon his return, and is only now returning to his full capabilities.
How the Patriots use Talib will be crucial to Sunday's game. He frequently dueled with Demaryius Thomas, and between tight coverage and the gale-force winds, Thomas was limited to a season-low 41 yards on four receptions.
The Week 12 game was Talib's second after returning from the hip injury. Six days earlier, the Panthers had targeted Talib frequently, and beaten him for six receptions covering 95 yards. The Broncos weren't quite as successful, but the game-tying 11-yard touchdown came at Talib's expense, when Thomas used his hands to get separation from the physical cornerback, providing enough space to grab the pass.
Talib's asset his his size and speed: at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, he's the only Patriots cornerback who has the physical characteristics to match up with Thomas. Talib's work on that touchdown was typical of his style; he will try to get his hands up and inside the receiver near the line of scrimmage, and relies upon disrupting the receiver's timing of his route enough to take that option out of the play.
But Talib's role turned out to be much more than just playing cornerback. Without him, LeGarrette Blount might not be in a Patriots uniform. Both are ex-Buccaneers, and when the Patriots had a chance to trade for Blount during the 2013 draft, head coach Bill Belichick sought Talib's counsel.
"One of the things that was very influential to me was Aqib's evaluation of LeGarrette as a person, as a teammate, as a competitive football player and his skill set," said Belichick. "When you have a guy who is with another player day after day, year after year, competing against him on the field and he gives you an honest evaluation and you trust that player and his evaluation, who knows better than him?"
It's a long way from Talib's days with Tampa Bay, when massive potential was undone by legal entanglements and, finally, a suspension for a violation of the NFL policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Talib has cleaned up his act in New England, and cleaned up the Patriots defense, helping prevent it from collapse in the wake of its myriad injuries.