DENVER — After seemingly taking turns missing time with an assortment of injuries, the members of the Patriots’ defensive secondary went into Sunday’s AFC Championship game as healthy as they had been all season. That was key, considering the Broncos’ potent passing game.
Their good health lasted barely a quarter. Cornerback Aqib Talib, perhaps the most talented defensive back on the team, collided with former Patriots receiver Wes Welker on a pass play early in the second quarter. Talib left the game and did not return; after being escorted by the medical staff to the locker room following the collision, Talib returned to the bench, but never reentered the game.
“If I could be out there, I would have been out there, man,” Talib said.
On the play, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning threw a pass intended for Demaryius Thomas that fell incomplete. Thomas was open partly because it appeared Welker was setting a pick for him, making contact with the lower body of Talib, who was covering Thomas. On the drive before, Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was called for offensive pass interference on a similar play.
This time, there was no penalty.
“As it turned out, that was a key play in the game,” coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s a key player for us.”
What did Talib think of the play?
“I can’t even remember how the play went,” Talib said. “I was just upset [at being hurt].”
The Patriots initially announced that Talib had suffered a rib injury, despite it looking like a left foot, ankle, or knee injury. Talib could be seen limping, and when he returned to the bench he was testing his left leg to see if he could possibly play.
It wasn’t until the third quarter that the team updated the injury, saying it was a knee. It said Talib’s return was questionable, but he never came back in.
“It affects us that he is a guy out there that has played a lot of football for us and he’s gone,” said Devin McCourty, who started at safety but took some snaps at cornerback in Talib’s absence. “It affects us, but schematically we were able to move on and keep playing.”
No doubting Thomas
One player the Patriots’ secondary didn’t have to deal with the first time the teams met this season was tight end Julius Thomas, who missed the Patriots’ 34-31 win Nov. 24 because of an injury. Thomas was healthy this time, and made a big impact, catching a team-high eight passes for 85 yards.
At 6 feet 5 inches, 250 pounds, Thomas is a difficult matchup, and the Patriots tried a number of players.
“He’s a good player,” McCourty said. “They were at full strength and 100 percent so we got their full offense. We knew what to expect and we were ready for it. We just got outplayed.”
Leg to stand on
He skillfully avoided the media all week, leaving open the possibility that he wouldn’t be healthy enough to play, but punter Ryan Allen knew by Tuesday that the injury he suffered last weekend against the Colts wouldn’t keep him out of the AFC Championship game. Allen hurt his shoulder in the divisional round, and worked hard to be in uniform on Sunday, along with plenty of help.
“I had a good week at practice, and I appreciate all the help and the time the trainers put in to get me feeling the best I could,” Allen said. “I was just happy to be out there with the team. I felt good, I was good to go; 100 percent.”
Allen punted three times, absorbing minimal contact on two of them (but drawing no flags). His first kick went for 60 yards, his second 55, and his third 32. All three kicks were downed inside the Denver 20. Allen also reported no discomfort serving as the holder for Stephen Gostkowski, who converted his only field goal attempt and one extra point.
Thompkins out, Dobson in
Kenbrell Thompkins, who had played the last two games despite suffering a concussion and a hip injury, was one of the Patriots’ seven inactives. But fellow receiver Aaron Dobson returned, giving the team some size at the position and a downfield threat. Dobson had aggravated a foot injury in the regular-season finale, and missed the playoff-opening win over the Colts. Dobson was targeted only three times, and had two catches for 33 yards.
Linebacker Steve Beauharnais, who missed Friday’s practice with an illness, had been ruled out, and the Patriots did not downgrade anybody on Saturday, leaving six more inactives. In addition to Thompkins, those included defensive back Justin Green, tight end D.J. Williams, offensive lineman Chris Barker, and defensive linemen Isaac Sopoaga and Jake Bequette.
For the Broncos, cornerback Marquice Cole was inactive. Cole played in 13 games for the Patriots this season, but signed with Denver last week after being released. He was a popular figure on the field before the game, exchanging hugs with many of the Patriots’ secondary, and chatting with injured defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.
Time not on their side
Denver’s offensive efficiency helped keep Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense off the field, and two numbers from the game illustrated how important that was. The Broncos enjoyed a time of possession advantage of 11½ minutes, and limited the Patriots to 56 offensive plays. The number of plays marked a season low for the Patriots; their previous low had been 60 in a Week 5 loss at Cincinnati. The Patriots ran 84 plays against the Broncos in the regular season, a game that went to overtime. “To keep Tom Brady on the sidelines is a good thing. That is something that you try to do when you’re playing against the Patriots,” Manning said . . . One point of emphasis for the Patriots’ defense was not getting drawn offside by Manning and his hard snap counts. A week earlier, the Chargers jumped offside five times; the Patriots stayed disciplined, not getting any offside penalties. They were flagged just twice in the game: a 10-yard offensive pass interference call on Hoomanawanui, and a 5-yard defensive holding call on Logan Ryan . . . For the only time this season, the Patriots played in a game that featured no turnovers . . . The only warmer home playoff game in Broncos history — it was 63 degrees at kickoff — was also against the Patriots, on Jan. 14, 1987, when it was 65 . . . With 4 points (one field goal, one extra point), Gostkowski upped his career postseason total to 99; it’s the second most in team history, trailing Adam Vinatieri’s 117 . . . Gostkowski was named to the Pro Bowl, replacing Denver’s Matt Prater.