Champ Bailey finally gets a chance to live up to his name.
The 12-time Pro Bowler is headed to his first Super Bowl in his 15th — and most trying — NFL season, one in which he missed 11 games and parts of two others because of a nagging foot injury.
“It hurt not being out there,” Bailey said after Denver topped New England in the AFC championship game, “but here I am. I’m on the field and my team’s still in the running. That’s what it’s all about.”
Bailey’s subdued celebration and measured reaction in delirious Denver stood in stark contrast to the scene in Seattle later Sunday night, where Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman stole the spotlight with his game-saving deflection, his taunting of Michael Crabtree and his television rant on the field afterward.
Sherman is the 25-year-old trash-talking leader of the league’s best defense, Bailey the 35-year-old sage of a unit that’s been through the ringer this season, but has come on strong over the past month despite injuries that cost them several starters, including Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr.
Bailey is one of the league’s top cornerbacks, but he’s clearly on the downslope of his spectacular career that includes the most Pro Bowls by a defensive back in NFL history.
Bailey was greeted in the locker room by former teammate John Lynch, who was with him the previous time he’d come this close to the Super Bowl — 2,919 days earlier.
One week after sealing a playoff win with a 100-yard interception return to hand Tom Brady his first playoff loss back in 2006, Bailey had another interception in his grasp and the end zone in his sights, but Hines Ward somehow came down with the football instead and Pittsburgh went on to beat Denver 34-17 for the AFC title following the 2005 season.
“I said he’d play really big and I think quietly he really did,” Lynch said. “It’s been a tough year. Everyone thinks he’s old, over the hill, but he’s been a great player throughout his whole career and great players, when it matters most, play great.”
Bailey had no spectacular plays this time, no pick-6s or takeaways or forced fumbles or sacks, just his usual steady play and calming leadership. He was hardly tested by Brady at all and finished with three tackles.
“I thought yesterday was his best performance of the season,” coach John Fox said Monday.
“I knew I’d be back at some point,” Bailey said. “My coaches, teammates, they never gave up on me.”