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Bailey savors long-awaited ‘trophy’ game opportunity

Denver Broncos and former UGA cornerback Champ Bailey (24) speaks to the media during Media Day for Super Bowl XLVIII at Prudential Center. (USA TODAY Sports: Adam Hunger)

Denver Broncos and former UGA cornerback Champ Bailey (24) speaks to the media during Media Day for Super Bowl XLVIII at Prudential Center. (USA TODAY Sports: Adam Hunger)

JERSEY CITY, NJ — It was an undistinguished 15th NFL season for cornerback Champ Bailey, right up until opportunity intersected with improved health as the Denver Broncos prepared for the AFC Championship game.

“It’s been tough,” Bailey said Wednesday, recalling his 11 games inactive and just three regular-season starts. “I’m not looking back. I’ve felt good for about a month. I can’t get those days and weeks back.”

Bailey thought he might miss only a week or two in September but battled a foot injury all season. He could not run full speed and was limited moving laterally. As a primarily man-to-man coverage team, Bailey was at an unsurmountable disadvantage with no power or explosiveness tracing the steps of wide receivers through their routes.

“It was tough for him,” said safety Mike Adams, a 10-year veteran. “He became more of a coach. When he was on the sidelines with his visor on, he was coaching all of the young guys. It brought the coach out of him. But he was so excited to be back.”

Bailey’s injury preserved Chris Harris’ starting role opposition Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Harris was arguably the top coverage defender on the roster all season.

In the AFC Divisional Playoffs, Harris went down with a season-ending knee injury.

Enter Bailey, who came to the Broncos via trade with the Washington Redskins. The deal sent Bailey to Denver for running back Clinton Portis.

Many seasons passed with great individual success, and Bailey always thought he’d get a chance to play in “trophy” games.

“Every year, I don’t have doubt my team could get there,” Bailey said. “I always think that I have a shot. That’s the only reason I still lace them up. I want to play in games like this. This is my first opportunity. I’m looking forward to it, making sure I’m ready.”

While he was hobbled with a sprained foot — the injury occurred in a preseason game Aug. 17 — he expected to heal within a month, September turned into October to November, Bailey found ways to contribute. Wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said he spent considerable time with the team’s young players, including Pro Bowl pick Demaryius Thomas and backup slot receiver Andre Caldwell.

“I feel like my experience could be helpful for a lot of guys on the team,” Bailey said, adding that he works with almost all younger players regardless of position. “They haven’t seen a whole lot, but they want to know everything.”

Bailey, 35, could draw explosive receiver Percy Harvin depending on how he is deployed by the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. Bailey said he will not fret over specific matchups or situations but bask in the moment after two decades of anticipation.

“It’s been a frustrating season for Champ up until recently,” coach John Fox said. “He spent many games inactive throughout the season, but he was always there — in that DB room. He stayed positive. Sometimes that can be a tricky thing when things aren’t going as planned.

“He weathered it. Might have been one of my fonder moments in coaching watching him hoist that Lamar Hunt Trophy there in Denver.”

If the Broncos are able to win Sunday, and Bailey gets his hands on the Lombardi Trophy, he is unsure what he plans to do in that moment. Already, teammate Mike Adams said he would walk to his childhood home — about 12 miles from MetLife Stadium — in full uniform if Denver beats Seattle.

“I could tell you this, I can tell you I haven’t thought about walking with him,” Bailey said.

NOTES: Fox said the Broncos practiced outdoors on a synthetic field on Monday at the New York Jets’ team facility in Florham Park, N.J. With light snowfall overnight, Fox still anticipated being outdoors for a fully padded practice on Wednesday afternoon. … Fox said players “all understand we submit to drug testing” in a defensive reply to another question related to legalization of marijuana in Colorado. “Why are we always going here?” Fox asked.