JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Champ Bailey has been chasing this moment for so long, it's easy to forget he entered the NFL via a draft pick that originally belonged to the Bears.
Indicative of what was wrong with the franchise at the time, the Bears traded down from the seventh pick in 1999 with the Redskins, who used it to draft the cornerback out of Georgia. The Bears wound up with quarterback Cade McNown at No. 12 and four others, most notably linebacker Warrick Holdman.
Now in his 15th season and 10th with the Broncos, nearing the end of a decorated career, Bailey is on the game's biggest stage for the first time, two days from facing the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium. The spotlight shines on the "Legion of Boom," Seattle's tall, deep and talented secondary, but Bailey has been doing it so long, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, the self-described best in the game, wasn't through junior high school when Bailey was considered the NFL's best corner.
The 35-year-old was teammates with Hall of Famers Darrell Green and Deion Sanders, and Seahawks Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas said he had a picture of Bailey on his MySpace page in high school. How long has it been since anyone referenced MySpace?
Asked how long he has been looking forward to this moment, Bailey said: "As long as I have been living. I always think things are going to work out. Here we are. Now we just have to win this game."
The Broncos spent most of the season winning without Bailey, who suffered a Lisfranc sprain in his left foot in the second exhibition game in Seattle. He played two games in mid-October, took five weeks off before playing again, made an appearance Dec. 1 and then rested another three weeks before returning. For a guy who missed a total of 14 games in his previous 14 seasons, it was difficult.
Finally, he's dependable again when the Broncos need him most with starting cornerback Chris Harris sidelined with a torn ACL. Bailey played a key role covering the slot in the Broncos' AFC title game victory over the Patriots, playing 56 of 59 snaps as the defense shut down Tom Brady.
Bailey doesn't move like he once did, not even close. But he has experience covering the slot, and in many regards that is the toughest secondary position to play because of all the space to cover.
"It's been tough," Bailey said. "But I'm not looking back. I've felt good for about a month and I continue to feel better, and that's all I can ask for. I can't get all those days and weeks back -- that's behind me -- but what's in front of me is big, and I know it. I understand it. I am ready for it."
It's a welcome sight for Bailey after a disastrous playoff appearance last season against the Ravens. Teammate Rahim Moore was the scapegoat for Joe Flacco's Hail Mary touchdown to Jacoby Jones, but Torrey Smith torched Bailey for long gains and two touchdowns.
"Everybody's going to have a bad game at some point," he said. "That's what separates the pros from the guys that think they're pros. It's the guys that can forget about the bad things and just keep moving on."
Even when Bailey was idle on game days, the team leaned on him in meetings. The coaching staff credited Bailey for handling a reduced role in the nickel package with professionalism. He probably won't be on the field as much against the Seahawks, but he's not making waves.
"Very unselfish of him," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "Very much about the team, and that is the tone we have tried to set with the group. When a key guy like Champ embraces that, it allows it all to work."
Bailey was photographed after the win over the Patriots looking to the sky, hoisting the Lamar Hunt Trophy over his head with confetti raining down. Secondary coach Cory Undlin got a copy to take home.
"The way he had it positioned over his head, that is a powerful image," Undlin said. "Everybody is fully aware of what he has done and how happy they are for him to be in this situation. Now we've got to play a game on Sunday, and that will be the deal."
The Broncos don't know quite what to expect from the Seahawks. Receiver Percy Harvin is a true X-factor after missing all but one regular-season game and one playoff game. Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Harvin present threats, especially when quarterback Russell Wilson improvises.
"Here we are now, and he is playing his best football," Del Rio said. "Champ is an important piece to what we're doing."
Bailey is signed through next season at $9 million, and it would be a surprise if the Broncos paid him anything close to that. This could be his closing moment.
"We'll see," Bailey said. "I'm just trying to get through this week, make sure I'm prepared for this game."
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