DENVER — When Aqib Talib went down with a rib injury against the Denver Broncos in the second quarter of the AFC Championship, there were huge implications for the Patriots' defense.
The secondary, often hobbled and at times outmatched, was dependent upon Talib to shut down one of the Broncos' four horsemen — Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, or Wes Welker — in order to give the defense a chance against the league's top scoring offense.
On Sunday, Talib's assignment appeared to be Demaryius Thomas, who also happens to be the league's top scoring wide receiver (14 touchdowns). But when he had to come out after being bulldozed by Wes Welker on a crossing pattern, the Patriots were forced to shuffle their defensive backs against the league's top offensive attack.
"It was a key play in the game," Belichick said. "I'll say he's a key player for us."
The injury didn't come without controversy. It appeared that Welker was trying to clear out Talib on the play, freeing up Demaryius Thomas on a Peyton Manning pass, instead of avoiding the contact.
"Yeah it was one of those plays where it's kind of a rough play and I was trying to get him to go over the top," Welker said. "And I think he was thinking the same thing and wanted to come underneath and we just kind of collided. It wasn't a deal where I was trying to hit him or anything like that. I hope he's OK. He's a great player and a big part of their defense."
With Talib out, Alfonzo Dennard moved into coverage against Demaryius Thomas, Logan Ryan came on to cover Decker, Kyle Arrington stayed on Welker, and Devin McCourty came down from the safety position to cover Julius Thomas when the tight end split out. With the Patriots' Pro Bowl cornerback knocked out of the game, Manning targeted Demaryius Thomas, who stands 6-foot-3, and attacked the 5-10 Dennard.
"Demaryius was going to be a big part of the game plan, whoever was covering him," said Manning. "When Talib went down, we certainly thought we have to get the ball to Demaryius again."
Manning took advantage of the matchup on the next Broncos drive, hitting Demaryius Thomas two plays in a row with Dennard chasing him around, going for 26 and 27 yards a bite.
In the third quarter, Manning zoned in on the rookie Ryan, who is 5-11, in coverage on Decker, who is 6-3. Manning connected with Decker for 18 and 8 yards.
After a dizzying display in the second half, with Dennard and Ryan the targets, Manning finished with 400 yards, heaped on in large part by both Thomases and Decker. Demaryius Thomas finished with seven receptions for 134 yards and a touchdown. Julius Thomas had eight catches for 85 yards. Decker caught five passes for 73 yards.
The Patriots were certainly a diminished defense without their Pro Bowl cornerback to help. But the Patriots weren't going to use that as an excuse, despite how much the defense shifted with his absence.
"It does change [without Talib]," Ryan said. "But we’re prepared for that. I think that’s the definition of the season. We’ve played with Talib out before and we’ve played with other guys being out before. It’s been the 'next man up' mentality the whole season. Unfortunately today, I wasn’t capable or able to make enough plays to make a difference."
Size, Ryan said, didn't matter.
"We played them earlier in the year and we did a great job against them," he said. "The same size, we’ve seen ‘em and they’ve seen us. And they were just able to make more plays today and more plays that counted in big situations to win the game.
"That's just how it is. We worked extremely hard, they worked extremely hard. Those 50-50 balls that we needed to come down with, we didn’t come down with them today."
Led by Manning's 400-yard passing effort, the Patriots allowed 507 total yards, the most by an opponent since Belichick became coach in 2000.