FOXBORO - The importance of Aqib Talib to the Patriots is shown by the responsibilities he shoulders.
On Sunday, playing in his first career playoff game, he was manned up with the great Texans receiver Andre Johnson. The Patriots don't often sic a corner on one specific receiver but Talib has been asked to do it twice now against the Texans - December 10 and Sunday.
Both times, Talib fought Johnson to a draw. Sunday, Johnson finished with eight catches for 95 yards. In today's NFL, that's about as well as you can do in a game where the quarterback throws it 54 times and is playing catch-up most of the game.
"It was a great battle; its two good football players," Bill Belichick said after the Patriots 41-28 win. "Johnson is a great receiver. Hes arguably one or two all-time (ed. note: I don't think he meant that...), hes tremendous. Hes big, fast, has great hands, good route runner. Aqib competed with him every down, just like he did the first half of the first game. Thats two good football players and thats a battle. We didnt give him a lot of help. Johnson caught a few but Aqib battled him pretty well there. It was a good matchup."
"It's football, man," answered Talib in his twangy cadence. "As a corner, a lot of time you draw that job. I'm definitely honored."
The 26-year-old Talib was traded to New England in October because the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were sick of dealing with him. Since joining Tampa as a first-rounder in 2008, he'd been in frequent trouble both with the law and within the league.
When New England acquired Talib, he was still on suspension after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
For a player whose career was headed off a cliff, Talib has - at least for now - grabbed onto a branch and it climbing back up.
"This is what you play for, man.. You don't play to play 16 and go home, you play to get in the tournament you know and try to win it all," Talib said when asked to reflect on where he's gotten. "Bill gave me a chance to come here and I got a chance to play in the tournament, man, so I'm very thankful."
Asked if life has gotten simpler since he's been in New England, Talib said, "It's a lot better. I wouldn't say simplified. I'd say it's a lot better. It's a lot better, man, getting to work for Mr. Kraft, Coach Belichick, it's a lot better."
At the end of this season, Talib will be a free agent. His work here has showcased that he's a very capable corner. The market for his services will likely be high. Whether New England is the right fit for him for the long-term, Talib wouldn't say.
"Right now I'm a Patriot, man," he said. "I'm a Patriot and next week we got the Ravens. I put (the future) in God's hands. He's the best planner, man, that's what my momma told me."