FOXBORO, Mass. — Two of the best New England Patriots cornerbacks of the Bill Belichick era will be on the field next Sunday in Atlanta.
One is Stephon Gilmore, who earned first-team All-Pro honors this season as the headliner of a formidable Patriots secondary.
The other is Aqib Talib, an excellent player during his relatively brief stint in New England and one who continues to play at a high level five years later. He’s now in his first season with the Los Angeles Rams, who knocked off the New Orleans Saints last Sunday to set up a date with the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
Acquired midway through the 2012 campaign, Talib was a Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro in his lone full season with the Patriots, intercepting four passes and breaking up 14. His injury in the 2013 AFC Championship Game was a major factor in New England’s loss to the Denver Broncos, with whom Talib went on to sign with the following offseason.
“Heâs a great player, man, and heâs smart,” Patriots safety Patrick Chung said Thursday. “He knows his football. Heâs not just out there running around. I think heâs a very intelligent player, and heâs good. …Â Iâm not surprised at all (that he’s still playing). I mean, heâs a dog. Heâs going to work hard, heâs going to grind it out, so Iâm not surprised at all heâs playing. Heâs a baller, so not surprising at all.”
Though he spent less than two years in Foxboro, Talib left a lasting impression on his fellow defensive backs — a group that included Chung and safety Devin McCourty.
“He taught me a lot,” McCourty said. “He was veteran guy coming in, feisty, very scrappy guy, but we still remain good friends to this day. I think thatâs the fun part of playing in the league for a while. You have former teammates, you have friends that you get to compete against. Heâs one guy that I know will be playing his best football on the other side of the field.”
Talib, who was traded to the Rams as part of an offseason shopping spree that also included deals for wide receiver Brandin Cooks and fellow corner Marcus Peters, missed eight games with an ankle injury but has started every game since returning to action in Week 13. LA is 8-2 with the 32-year-old in the lineup this season, including two playoff wins.
“You see it even in their team, how much better they played on defense with him,” McCourty said. “Heâs a leader. I think he really gets guys to follow him when he goes out there and plays, and I thought he brought a great edge to our team when he came for the two years he was here.”
Pro Football Focus’ 18th-highest-graded cornerback during the regular season, Talib has allowed fewer than 45 receiving yards in nine of his 10 games and 29 yards total this postseason (14 against the Dallas Cowboys, 15 against the Saints). Though he has just one interception this season, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is wary of Talib and Peters’ ability to turn errant passes into pick-sixes.
That’s a valid fear, considering 10 of Talib’s 35 career interceptions were returned for touchdowns.
“Heâs a very talented player,” Belichick said. “Peters is on the other side. They have two great corners that can match up, really, against any receiver — big, fast, quick, savvy. Those guys can cover anybody. Theyâre both very good with their ball skills. As we know, Talibâs got great hands, makes some tough catches.
“If you make a mistake around him, itâs not an incompletion. It could be going the other way. … I mean, youâve got to worry about them not just intercepting the ball — youâve got to worry about them intercepting and running back for a touchdown, too.”
This will be Talib’s fifth matchup against the Patriots in the five seasons since he left the team. His teams are 2-2 in those games, including a victory in the 2015 AFC title game. Talib broke up a pass on a two-point conversion to seal that win for the Broncos.