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Broncos' Champ Bailey reaches Super Bowl after 15-year wait

DENVER -- None of the Denver Broncos waited as long for a trip to the Super Bowl than cornerback Champ Bailey.

Fifteen years.

Bailey, a 15-year NFL veteran, 12-time Pro Bowler, and future Hall of Famer, hadn't contributed much to the Broncos' run to the AFC championship game. A foot injury kept him out of 11 games this season, and he made just three starts.

But a season-ending knee injury to former Kansas star Chris Harris Jr. allowed Bailey to reclaim his starting left cornerback job Sunday. And Bailey played a crucial role in the Broncos beating Tom Brady and the New England Patriots 26-16, which put Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII against Seattle.

"That's what it's all about -- get yourself to have a chance to get in the big one, and that's where we are now," Bailey said.

No one could understand what reaching the Super Bowl meant to Bailey more than Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.

"I'm certainly happy for Champ, I know a lot of people are," said Manning, a longtime opponent of Bailey's. "Let's see, Champ's one year younger than me, so he's in his 15th season . . . 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.

"Champ played well (on Sunday). 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."

A year ago, Bailey played all 16 games for the ninth time in his career and was voted a starter for his 12th Pro Bowl -- a record for a defensive back. But he suffered a Lisfranc sprain on the turf at Seattle in the second preseason game, and at 35 years old, there were some doubts whether Bailey would ever be back.

"I had a million thoughts go through my head with this injury," he said. "And I've never had to deal with something like this. I knew I would come back. You might not have known, but I knew I'd be back at some point.

"My coaches, teammates they never gave up on me. They knew I'd be back to 100 percent at some point, and here I am. I'm playing probably my best football of the year because I haven't played much, and I'm just looking forward to the next one."

Bailey watched as other corners, notably Harris, took over the spot he manned since coming to Denver in 2004 in a blockbuster trade with Washington for running back Clinton Portis. The most dangerous thing he could do was come back too soon.

"I don't put damaged goods on the field, so that's just how I am," Bailey said . " . . . We're all banged up -- we all got something to deal with. It's not about my health. I mean I feel good and it showed (Sunday), and I'm just looking forward to the next one."

Bailey was one of several Broncos players who dealt with adversity, be it season-ending injuries to starters such as center Dan Koppen, tackle Ryan Clady and linebacker Von Miller or the heart surgery coach John Fox underwent in the middle of the season that sidelined him for four weeks.

"Well, every team goes through something," Bailey said. "Even New England, they went through a lot this year and they ended up here as well.

"These guys, starting with our head coach, he's done a great job of making us understand the moments and taking advantage of them. I think with his absence and coming back, we just found a way to win and keep going and that really (is a) credit to him because he made sure that we're prepared for things like that."

(c)2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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