Ten weeks after being discarded by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Aqib Talib is flourishing in New England, where he is being treated as the second coming of Deion Sanders.
Sanders, a Hall of Fame cornerback, gained fame by backing up his bragging with a rare ability to contain the opposition's premier wide receiver.
Since the Bucs traded Talib and a seventh-round draft pick to the Patriots on Nov. 1 for a fourth-round selection, New England coach Bill Belichick hasn't stopped gushing about his new shut-down corner.
"I like him and the team likes him,'' Belichick said Wednesday as the Pats prepared for Sunday's AFC title game against Baltimore. "He's a good football player, a good teammate and he's very well respected because of his professionalism. He's a good guy to be around.''
In the first playoff game of Talib's five-year career, he registered a team-high 10 tackles on Sunday in a 41-28 victory against Houston while jawing incessantly with six-time Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson.
"If you're a cornerback and you don't want to go after their best receiver, you're in the wrong business,'' Talib said after Johnson caught eight passes for 95 yards but failed to reach the end zone. "It showed my coach has got a little confidence in me. I can't complain about that.''
Once the Bucs decided they weren't going to re-sign Talib after the final year of his rookie contract, they pursued a trade with Belichick, who is close to Bucs coach Greg Schiano.
Now it's New England that must decide whether to keep Talib out of the free-agent market by making a long-term commitment to a 26-year-old player who has been suspended twice by the NFL.
Talib sounds like a man who has found NFL nirvana in Foxborough, Mass.
"When you are little and you are thinking about being in the NFL, you think about being in this situation,'' Talib said. "It is ideal for me. It is real football. You come here and you know you are going to play real football.''
Talib joined the Bucs in 2008 as a talented first-round pick out of Kansas whose draft stock dropped because of character concerns. He flashed some skills in Tampa, intercepting 18 passes in 58 games, but never made the Pro Bowl and was often burned in coverage with his aggressive style.
In Week 2 of this season, Talib was matched up primarily against Hakeem Nicks of the Giants. Nicks caught 10 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown in New York's 41-34 victory.
But in New England, Talib has energized a defense that had been allowing an average of 25.1 points a game.
The Patriots went 5-1 with Talib, yielding an average of 21.7 points in that span, and his presence allowed New England to keep Devin McCourty at safety, shoring up a porous secondary.
"He is a special player,'' Patriots Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. "Aqib definitely has made a big difference in what we do defensively. Anytime you can basically say, 'Hey, you've got this guy and we are going to cover everybody else,' that is a good sign. He loves the game. I always try to find guys that have the passion because I can play with anybody like that.''
Tampa Bay's secondary struggled all season – with Talib or without. The Bucs allowed the most passing yards in the league, nearly setting an NFL record by allowing 4,758 yards through the air.
While Talib was finishing out his four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances, the Bucs dealt him, leaving the Patriots to pay Talib a pro-rated $762,794 for the final seven weeks.
Now, Talib is preparing for Ravens wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, with an eye on the Super Bowl in New Orleans on Feb. 3.
"Oh man, this is what you play for,'' Talib said. "You don't play football to play 16 games and go home. You play to get into the tournament and try to get the trophy.''