-- DENVER -- For the second straight season, New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib was forced to depart the AFC Championship Game due to injury, leaving early in the second quarter with a knee injury that sidelined him for the balance of the team's 26-16 defeat against the Denver Broncos.
"[It was] very difficult," Talib said after the game of the injury.
Upon exiting, Talib went to the locker room multiple times, while also continuing to work out and jog on the sidelines in anticipation of a possible return. That never happened, however, as he stayed out of the game. After originally reporting it to be a rib injury, the Patriots later clarified it was his knee that was hurt.
"If I could be out there, I would've been out there, man," Talib said after the game.
Talib was injured on a play in which former Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker collided with him on an underneath route in which no penalty was called.
"That was a key play in the game," Patriots coach Bill Belichick deadpanned after the game.
Welker said he wasn't trying to hurt Talib.
"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 and I think he was thinking the same thing and wanted to come underneath and we just kind of collided," Welker said. "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."
"I can't even remember how the play went," Talib said following the loss.
Without its Pro Bowl cornerback, the banged-up Patriots secondary was picked apart by Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and his cast of star recievers. Manning had 289 of his 400 yards passing after Talib left and at one point completed 14 straight throws.
"It was very tough," cornerback Alfonzo Dennard said about the loss of Talib. "After he went out, they attacked. It was very hard."
Following Talib's departure, the Patriots relied heavily on the trio of Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington and Dennard at cornerback. Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas were the big pass catchers for Denver, with nearly 220 yards combined between.
Dennard appeared to be particularly targeted after the Talib injury, struggling to hold up in man coverage as the Broncos continued to attack him with Talib on the sideline.
"Yeah, no matter what, they're going to keep coming at me," Dennard conceded after the game. "If I was a quarterback, I'd do the same thing."
Patriots safety Devin McCourty added that the secondary didn't alter its schemes without Talib, but not having its top cornerback no doubt played a part in the defeat.
"He's a guy that's been out there, he's played a lot of football for us and he's gone, so it affects that way," McCourty said. "But schematically we were able to move on and keep playing."
What lies ahead for Talib is also unclear, as he's due to become a free agent for the second straight offseason. The soon-to-be 28-year-old has previously stated his comfort level and appreciation for playing in New England, and there appears to be mutual interest in bringing Talib back.
He was often used as a shadow cornerback for New England, aiming to lock down an opponent's top wide receiver. But at a position that he excelled at this season -- he made his first Pro Bowl and was named a second team All-Pro cornerback -- Talib will be a valuable commodity for a team in need of secondary help.