FOXBOROUGH — When the Patriots faced the Jaguars last Sunday, they did so with secondary personnel quite different from what it had been the previous month.
Aqib Talib, whose arrival has helped settle the back end of the defense and allowed New England to put players in more natural positions, struggled through warm-ups because of a hip injury suffered late in the team’s win against the Texans.
Though he’d played 64 of 68 defensive snaps a week later against San Francisco, Talib clearly wasn’t at his best in Jacksonville. He was in uniform, but he played just eight snaps.
His limited availability, combined with Alfonzo Dennard’s absence because of hamstring and knee injuries, meant that Devin McCourty was back at cornerback for the first time since Week 6, and Kyle Arrington, who had been playing nickel corner, was back on the outside and starting.
Patrick Chung started at safety with McCourty at cornerback.
Talib was limited in practice Thursday — one of 20 players with that designation on New England’s injury report — but said he is improving.
“I’m definitely getting better, working every day trying to get better, and we’ll see what happens,” Talib said.
With Miami receiver Davone Bess likely to miss Sunday’s game, New England may not need Talib and could rest its top corner for the postseason, once again kicking Arrington outside.
“The mind-set is to win, of course,” said Talib. “It’s a game. We’ll put on our helmet and shoulder pads, 70,000 [fans] or whatever are going to be there. The mind-set is definitely to win the game.”
This is the first time in Talib’s five-year career that he’s going to the playoffs. Things had soured between him and the Buccaneers, and he likely wasn’t going to be back after his rookie deal ends at the end of this season.
But when asked Thursday about the differences between New England and Tampa Bay, he passed on the chance to disparage his former team.
“There’s a ton of differences,” he said. “I’m not going to get into the specifics of it, but there’s a ton of differences. Look at the records; you’ll see the differences.”
After starting the season 6-4, the Buccaneers, under first-year head coach (and friend of Bill Belichick) Greg Schiano, have lost five straight.
Thanks, but . . .
Matthew Slater was one of seven Patriots named to the AFC Pro Bowl roster, and though he is happy to be recognized for the second straight year, he’d prefer not to go to the game.
“I’d rather be eating gumbo in New Orleans than pineapple in Hawaii,” Slater said, referring to the location of this year’s Super Bowl. “I think the team has had a good year — that shows by us getting individual awards.
“But they’re really not individual awards. They’re team awards. They’re team honors.”
Last year, Slater got a pass because the Patriots were in the Super Bowl; with the Pro Bowl now held on the Sunday after the conference championship games, players on the Super Bowl teams are exempted.
“I didn’t get to go last year,” Slater said. “Hopefully, I don’t get to go this year.”
Slater has recorded a team-high 20 tackles on special teams and has served as special teams captain for the second straight season.
Get it going
Echoing the words of Belichick and Tom Brady Wednesday, Vince Wilfork emphasized that the Patriots have to get off to a stronger start against the Dolphins than they have in recent weeks.
“We have to do a better job of starting games,” Wilfork said. “We’ve shown that we can play with anybody, we can play for 60 minutes, but there’s so much up and down, and part of that is how we start.
“We have to do a better job of starting fast. That’s going to be a motto: start fast and finish strong. It’s a good week to start this week — last game of the season, being at home, division game, a team that’s not going to come in and lay down. Our main goal is to execute and start fast.”
Cole held out
Cornerback Marquice Cole did not practice because of a finger injury, the only Patriot not to participate. Cole was limited for Wednesday’s session, though the Patriots had only a walkthrough. Rob Gronkowski (forearm/hip) was among those listed as limited. The team practiced in the wind and rain on the Gillette Stadium game field, with players in shells and sweats.