NEW YORK -- Quarterback Peyton Manning may be the face of the Denver Broncos. But cornerback Champ Bailey is the club's heart and soul.
He's the anti-Richard Sherman. Bailey has gone about his business for 15 NFL seasons, quietly taking on the best wide receivers in pro football and daring the best quarterbacks to throw his way.
A foot injury limited Bailey to just five games in 2013, but he returned to the starting lineup in the AFC championship game after Chris Harris suffered a season-ending knee injury.
And now Bailey, at age 35, will play in his first Super Bowl on Sunday, against the Seattle Seahawks.
"I think that's the way it works out," said Bailey, who leads all NFL cornerbacks with 52 interceptions since his rookie year in 1999. "If I was supposed to be here, I would have been here a long time ago. Things do take time, and I finally got with the right group of guys, as a whole. I played with some great players, but this is definitely the best team I've been on."
Though Bailey failed to play in all 16 games in 2013 for just the fifth time in 15 seasons (he played in 15 twice and 14 in another year), he still made a valuable contribution to the Broncos.
"He was always there," Denver coach John Fox said. "In that defensive room . . . his guidance, his leadership was always there and never wavered. He stayed positive.
"Sometimes that can be a tricky thing, when things aren't going as planned, but he weathered it. He got himself back healthy. And so it might have been one of my fonder moments in coaching, just watching him hoist that Lamar Hunt Trophy there in Denver."
Bailey injured his foot against Seattle, ironically, in the second preseason game of the year.
"I never thought there'd be a moment where I didn't get back," Bailey said. "I knew I would heal . . . It definitely took a lot longer than I expected.
"It worked out even better than I thought. I don't think any guy on any roster is 100 percent, but my foot feels good enough to play, and I'm ready to go."
A victory in the Super Bowl could all but cement Bailey's place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His 12 career Pro Bowl selections are the most by a NFL defensive back; he was selected to the NFL's all-decade team for the 2000s; and he turned in one of the most dramatic plays in NFL postseason history when he returned an interception 100 yards in 2005 against New England.
Even the opposition is looking forward to facing Bailey.
"He's one of those guys I've been watching my entire career," Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin said. "I've always looked up to him. I just loved the way he plays the game of football. He's such a cerebral football player, he's very athletic, and none of his movements are wasted, he does everything with a purpose.
"It's going to be an extremely exciting opportunity for me to go up against one of the best to ever play the game at his position."
As great as Bailey has been, he never has tooted his own horn, never shouted to the cameras like Sherman, the Seahawks' outspoken cornerback.
"It's his career, it's his image," Bailey said. "If that's the way he wants to portray himself, that's fine. I don't have anything bad to say about him. The guy's a great player, he's heady, he's smart. I love the way he plays the game."
It's possible that Bailey could retire if the Broncos win the Super Bowl.
"I'm not really thinking about retiring," he said. "All I'm thinking about is winning and doing what I've got to do to win the game. That's my preparation this week. After the game, we'll talk about that."
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