ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — 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.
The two contrasting styles will draw much attention in the days leading up to the Super Bowl on Feb. 2.
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 a 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.
Peyton Manning, who knows a little bit about overcoming injuries and long odds to reach the Super Bowl, said he was “certainly happy for Champ, I know a lot of people are.”
“There’s a guy — let’s see, Champ’s one year younger than me so he’s in his 15th season — like I said, it’s hard to get to the Super Bowl. It’s hard to win it, but I’m telling you it’s hard to get there,” Manning said. “I’m glad that he’s back out there on the field. He’s battled through some injuries and has stayed at it and been committed to his rehab.”
Bailey started just three games this season, and he finished just one of those, against Jacksonville on Oct. 13. After aggravating his foot injury in his two other starts, he was relegated to slot duty by the time he finally got healthy in mid-December.
That changed when Harris got hurt in the Broncos’ playoff win over San Diego and Bailey started Sunday opposite Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, then moved into the slot on passing downs to thwart the heart of the Patriots’ offense.
“I knew I’d be back at some point,” Bailey said. “My coaches, teammates, they never gave up on me. They knew I’d be back to 100 percent at some point. Here I am, I’m playing probably my best football of the year — because I haven’t played much. I’m just looking forward to the next one, making sure my body is right for the next game.”
And don’t count on him getting caught up in the comparisons at the Super Bowl between him and Sherman, who represents this new breed of cornerback, the bigger, athletic DBs who trash talk as well as any of the receivers they cover.
About the only trash-talking that came out of Bailey’s mouth Sunday was when he was asked about how the Broncos shut down the Patriots’ ground game.
The Broncos held LeGarrette Blount to 6 yards on five carries a week after Blount scored four TDs against Indianapolis.
“Well,” Bailey said matter-of-factly, “they didn’t play the Broncos last week.”
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton.