FOXBOROUGH — Cornerback Aqib Talib doesn’t know if he’ll return to the Patriots, since he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. All he knows is how much fun he’s had the few months he’s been with the team.
If you read closely, you’ll notice that in his comments Monday, Talib spent part of the time talking in the past tense (leaving some to assume his time here is up), and part of the time talking about being a member of the Patriots in the present tense.
“I had a lot of fun here, I definitely enjoyed my time here,” Talib said, roughly 12 hours after the Patriots lost to the Ravens, 28-13, in the AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium Sunday night. “We’ll see what happens in the future, but I definitely had the most fun I’ve had playing football in a long time here.”
Talib was acquired by the Patriots Nov. 1 from the Buccaneers, and improved a secondary that had been one of the team’s defensive weak points. He made an immediate impact, intercepting a pass thrown by the Colts’ Andrew Luck and returning it 59 yards for a touchdown in his Patriots debut.
In six regular-season games (Talib was in uniform for the finale against the Dolphins but didn’t play), Talib had 19 tackles, the one interception, and two passes defensed. He also recovered a fumble against the 49ers.
Before Talib arrived, the Patriots gave up more 30-yard pass plays than any team in the league; in the games they had with him, that number turned into one of the fewest.
“Aqib, he’s a great talent, so it was definitely a loss for us to lose someone like that early in [Sunday night’s] game,” said Kyle Arrington, who took over for Talib. “You can’t teach height, can’t teach size. He’s physical as well, long, good hips. I sound like his PR guy now.”
Talib was injured in the first quarter against the Ravens, pulling up with a thigh injury while breaking up a pass intended for Anquan Boldin. He retreated to the locker room with the medical staff, returned to the sideline to see if he could get back on the field, then sat on the bench when he realized he could not.
“Aw, man, the worst way to go out in any game, let alone the AFC Championship,” Talib said. “We came in here [locker room], we did some stuff, it just wasn’t strong enough to go compete at that level.”
Talib, like some of the other Patriots who will become free agents at the end of the season, wouldn’t speculate on how the process might play out or where he’ll be playing next season.
He had a ready answer when asked about his future plans.
“I definitely enjoy being a Patriot,” he said. “We’ll let everything . . . it’s the business side of the business.”
How will he approach free agency?
“I’m not really worried about all that. The game was 12 hours ago, I’m in the training room with the guys, we’re having fun, right now I’m still a Patriot,” Talib said. “Free agency doesn’t start until March, so until then I’m still a Patriot and enjoying my time.”
Coach Bill Belichick, in his opening remarks Monday and then again when he was asked specifically about Talib, said it’s way too early to know who might be back and who won’t.
“We will not make any decisions on any players into the future now. You just can’t do it. There are too many factors, too many unknown things,” Belichick said. “All the things I said about Aqib, I meant and I still feel that way. Nothing has changed, but I can’t put into place an entire plan for the team at this point in time. There’s just not enough information. It’s too early.”
Arrington is another Patriot who is about to become an unrestricted free agent.
The Patriots have 14 players on their 53-man roster who are not under contract for 2013: Arrington, Talib, and fellow defensive backs Patrick Chung, Marquice Cole, and Derrick Martin; offensive linemen Sebastian Vollmer and Donald Thomas; defensive lineman Trevor Scott; tight end Michael Hoomanawanui; linebackers Tracy White and Niko Koutovides; running back Danny Woodhead; and receivers Deion Branch and Wes Welker.
Some of them, no doubt, will be part of the Patriots’ plans for next season and beyond; some will sign with other teams.
Quarterback Tom Brady, as he’s often done, spoke up in favor of keeping Welker around.
“Everyone knows how I feel about Wes. Our whole team feels that way about Wes,” Brady said, during his weekly contractually obligated radio appearance on WEEI. “He’s one of the best players I’ve ever played with and played against. He’s just a phenomenal player.
“He’s been the heart and soul of what our team’s all about. He’s been so selfless. The way that he carries himself and commits himself to help our team win, it’s second to none.”
Despite the uncertainty, Arrington is choosing to embrace the position he’s in.
“I couldn’t ask to be around a better group of guys, so I’m looking forward to it, see what next year brings, and take it from there,” Arrington said. “I’m sort of a gym rat, so I’m sure I’ll be back in here — if they let me in — lifting weights, doing cardio, whatever, do some running.”
Talib sounded like his short-term plans were similar: take some time to decompress after a long season, then start preparing for next season.
“Chill for a short minute, enjoy my time at home, then get right back at it,” he said. “Always the ultimate goal is to get to the big one, so we’ll work hard this offseason, see what happens.
“We’re one of the best teams in the league, and y’all know that.”