The New England Patriots have adjusted on the fly to one big injury after another.
On Sunday against the Denver Broncos, they met their match.
Cornerback Aqib Talib went down with a
rib knee injury, marking the second straight year he did not play to the end of an AFC Championship game. The source of his injury was a less-than-legal low hit by Broncos receiver Wes Welker.
The result of his injury was a seismic shift in the secondary that left cracks in the foundation of the Patriots defense.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick wouldn't comment on whether the hit should have been flagged, saying only, "It was a key play in the game." From the inflection of his voice, though, he not sound pleased.
It's hard enough to match up with the Broncos offense at full strength. To do so at less than 100 percent is nearly impossible. They simply have too many weapons.
"They've got a lot of good players," said Belichick. "[They're a] tough team to match up against with all the good skill players they have -- backs, tight ends, receivers -- so they have obviously a good football team, good offensive system, good quarterback."
Instead of Talib covering Demaryius Thomas, it was Alfonzo Dennard; instead of Dennard covering Eric Decker, it was Logan Ryan. As a result, both players were exposed.
Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen had some interesting observations on what got Dennard beat by Thomas:
Thomas was too strong for Dennard on the release, showed the ability run through the jam and also create separation within the route stem on the post, the slant, fade, etc. ... Dennard couldnâ€™t hang with the size/power of Thomas at the line of scrimmage or down the field at the point of attack. And when Manning identified that matchup he wanted, the veteran quarterback went after Dennard to take advantage of the Patriots man-coverage schemes while punching a ticket to the Super Bowl in New York.
Things looked good before Talib went down. The Broncos offense didn't look too hot to start the game, punting on their first possession for only the fourth time this year. It wasn't until Talib left that the matchups started to unfold in an unfavorable fashion for the Patriots.
To be fair, Dennard was not the only one on the wrong end of a few big plays. Ryan consistently found himself out of position, particularly in coverage of Decker.
The in-game ramifications were obvious. The long-term ramifications will not be.
Those long-term ramifications pertain to Talib's future status with the team. On one hand, he was a key component to the Patriots' defense at nearly every successful point in the season. On the other hand, he has missed time due to injury in each of the past two seasons.
The Patriots will likely be weighing all of this internally in the coming weeks prior to free-agency, because that's not an injury you can game-plan for. As you get further down the depth chart, there simply aren't enough big-bodied cornerbacks to run and cover Denver's talented receivers man-to-man.
"If I could be out there, I would have been out there, man," Talib said after the game.
That was apparent in his continued efforts to get back in the game. The cornerback went back-and-forth between the locker room and the field. He could have been the key ingredient to containing the Broncos' offense. Instead, he had to watch helplessly from the sideline. No one wants to be in that position.
Whether it's his teammates, his coaches or himself, Talib's injury couldn't have come at a worse time for anyone involved.
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