“I’m not going to lie, that crosses my mind a lot,” Bailey said. “I try to block it out. You look at a guy like (N.Y. Giants defensive end Michael) Strahan. How long did he wait to get a ring? It takes awhile for some people. Some people get it in their first year. I think my time will come.”
He said that in June of 2008, right before he turned 30 years old.
Five years passed and Bailey didn't get close. There were a couple divisional round playoff losses since then, including last year's big disappointment against the Ravens in which he didn't play well.
Bailey is 35 now, very close to the end of his career. He's going to the Hall of Fame someday. He has been to the Pro Bowl 12 times in his 15 seasons, and in his prime was undeniably one of the best cornerbacks to ever play the game.
The ring – or even a chance to play in a Super Bowl – is still missing from his career. It's the only thing missing. He has a chance to advance to his first Super Bowl when the Patriots meet the Broncos on Sunday in an AFC championship game.
If it wasn't for the constant talk about Peyton Manning and his legacy, maybe we'd pay more attention to Bailey. Bailey is the Strahan or Jerome Bettis of these playoffs, one of the game's greats who has played 224 games and just wants to play in one Super Bowl.
"We had some up-and-down years, but that is the reason why, when my contract was up – the time before this one – there was no doubt I wanted to be back here," Bailey said.
"Because this organization is about winning, so it wasn’t going to take long until we got back to it. I feel good about what I did and am definitely glad I’m still here."
Much like Bettis, who was a role player by the time he got to a Super Bowl with the Steelers, Bailey isn't what he used to be. He played just five regular-season games this season because of injuries. He was mostly on the sideline last week against San Diego, playing the slot in the nickel defense, because the Broncos were limiting his plays to make sure he didn't get hurt again.
For a player who missed three games in his first eight seasons, it hasn't been fun.
"It’s been very frustrating – my most frustrating, probably because I’m living it right now," Bailey said. "The only thing I care about now is I’m back on the field. I’m ready to go. I feel good, and that’s all that matters right now."
It's funny how sports work. All of a sudden, the Broncos really need Bailey. Cornerback Chris Harris is out for the season with a torn ACL. Quentin Jammer replaced Harris against the Chargers and got beat repeatedly. Can Bailey give Denver more snaps on Sunday, and give the Broncos one more big game?
"I’m ready for whatever they want me to do," he said.
Bailey's greatest NFL moment came against Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, in the playoffs at the end of the 2005 season. He intercepted Brady in the end zone with the Patriots looking to take the lead and returned it 100 yards to the 1-yard line. Denver won that game. But the next week in the AFC championship game, Bailey had another big play – probably a pick-six – go through his hands on the first drive of the game and it was caught by Hines Ward for a big third-down conversion. The Steelers (with Bettis is his last year), scored on that opening drive, won that game and went to the Super Bowl. Bailey hasn't been that deep in the playoffs since, until this year.
Bailey said he doesn't think about that Steelers loss often, mostly because it was eight years ago. That's a couple of careers for most NFL players.
"Champ’s pretty close to the face of that franchise, has been for the last decade," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Great player, great ball skills, tremendous consistency. I think Champ is one of the players that, [what] makes him so special is he can just match up against anybody."
No matter what happens on Sunday, the story will be Manning. But on the other side of the ball, there's another Hall-of-Fame lock who has a lot on the line, even if he's not the focal point of anyone's attention anymore.
"All I care about is winning the game in front of me," Bailey said. "[I do] not worry about my legacy – all those things will take care of themselves. I’m just worried about what is in front of me."
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