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December 20. 2013 9:52PM

Talib's grit, swagger endear him to Pats

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Aqib Talib has a couple different limps.

The first drips with a swagger so contagious it spreads through the entire Patriots defense, as the cornerback performs with so much confidence that he can erase an all-world tight end in Jimmy Graham or get into a street fight with Steve Smith on national television. He's cocky because he can be, and his teammates love that about him.

The second limp is the result of the latest injury to a balky hip that has given him issues throughout his career and might have cost him a long-term contract in last offseason's open market. It did cost him another three games this season and admittedly limited his performance when he returned in Week 11. However, Talib has started to shake that ailment.

So long to the bad limp. Hello to the good one.

"Definitely, I'm getting that bounce back," Talib said Thursday. "I came back right after and was still playing out there limping a little bit. I definitely think that limp is gone now. I think I'm getting closer to all the way back."

That became clearer last week against the Dolphins, as Talib only allowed two receptions on three targets for 22 yards while manning up on five different players. He opened the game on tight end, offensive catalyst Charles Clay, who wasn't targeted during the corner's eight man assignments. He then split his reps between wide receiver Rishard Matthews (no targets on six pass routes against Talib), tight end Michael Egnew (one catch, 8 yards, three matchups) and running back Lamar Miller (no targets, two matchups).

Talib played the majority of the fourth quarter on Miami's leading receiver Brian Hartline, who caught one of the two passes thrown his way for 8 yards over 11 matchups. Talib also played zone eight times and blitzed once.

Talib looked closer to the player before the injury, so much so that Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill didn't even look his way during his first 14 drop-backs.

"Your confidence comes with that health," Talib said. "You feel like you can run any route with a guy, then you'll play a different way. It definitely helps to be healthy."

The health and confidence helps put the whole thing together for Talib, who has thoroughly enjoyed the Patriots' winning culture over the past 14 months. Barring a collapse, Talib will make his second straight trip to the playoffs, and this one has a fresher feel to it since he's been with the Pats for the duration of the ride.

"It's definitely one of the funnest seasons that I've had, a full season with these guys, with this coaching staff, with this routine," he said. "You win games. Winning games is tough, so it's definitely one of the funnest seasons I've had."

And the Patriots want Talib to be himself, too. The endearing jokester is a locker-room unifier who balances the laughs with the dedication that earned him an offseason award. The 27-year-old appreciates the dynamic.

"At the end of the day, this was a game we all started playing when we were teens or younger than that," Talib said. "This brings you back to that, away from the real world, away from the bills and the drama. You come in the locker room, and it's all fun and games.

"I was just very social growing up. I talked to everybody growing up. I get to the locker room and talk to everybody. Everywhere I go, I just talk to everybody. When we work, we work. The coaches do a good job of that. We don't do any playing around in the classroom. We joke and laugh on the field and off the field, but we're professionals. We know how to work when it's time to work and keep it light when you can."

It wasn't all fun during Talib's three-week absence, as he reinjured the hip amid his renowned shutdown performance against Graham and the Saints in Week 6. The frustrating ailment essentially ended his early-season bid to become the Defensive Player of the Year, but Talib said he wasn't listening to that talk anyway.

"When it comes to the accolades, I kind of don't even pay it no mind," Talib said. "We're looking for one accolade. We all know what that is."


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