During the first 12 seasons of the cornerback’s decorated 15-year career, Bailey made the Pro Bowl 10 times – yet found himself sitting at home during the postseason in all but three of those initial 12 seasons.
Fast-forward three years and, as Bailey prepares to embark on a third-consecutive postseason campaign – a run unprecedented during his career – he’s developed a consciousness of how precious playoff football is by virtue of many other seasons his teams poured in so much work, only to be left out of the mix at the end of the regular season.
It’s an awareness that Bailey pointed out younger players in the league may not have until they’ve experienced the sting of missing the postseason themselves.
“Until they go through a couple of losing seasons I don’t think – they’re not going to understand until that happens,” Bailey said.
He was quick to add, however, that the young contingent of Broncos who have only known making the playoffs during their careers aren’t any less hungry for success.
“But I think they do understand that they’ve got a game this week and we’ve got to play our butts off to win it,” Bailey said. “That’s all we care about right now.”
Sunday’s AFC Divisional Round playoff matchup against the Chargers marks another one of those opportunities for the Broncos – and for Bailey, who returned to action in the Broncos’ Week 16 win over Houston after missing much of the regular season with a foot injury.
Since his return, Bailey has lined up at the slot-corner position in back-to-back games where the Broncos limited their opponent to less than 200 yards passing. And while Bailey has spent much of his career lining up on the outside, he’s embraced the opportunity to play inside – noting that he feels even more involved in the defense with his new role.
“I’m more involved. I think I’m more in the mix - I’m definitely mixing it up in the run and the pass. There are a lot of benefits to being in there,” Bailey said. “Being outside, you’re always searching for the call, you’re trying to make sure you’re getting lined up right. There are a lot of challenges to being outside, but being inside I kind of get a feel for everything before it happens.”
No matter where Bailey lines up on the field, his veteran leadership and on-field capabilities are welcomed by Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio.
“He’ll be ready to help us however we call on him,” Del Rio said. “Good football player and he’s been playing the last couple of weeks and kind of emerging as a guy that once again can be counted on to do great things for us. I think he’s been a tremendous player throughout his career and we’re glad that he’s back and healthy and involved and ready to roll.”
Bailey’s return at the end of the season also marked the first stretch of 2013 that a healthy Bailey had been able to play alongside cornerbacks
“Anytime you have cover people, you can do more in terms of being aggressive and playing man,” he said. “That’s what we do. We’ll put a good plan together and go after them.”
“We’re counting on Champ. We’re counting on everybody on our roster to do their part, be prepared, understand what it takes to do their part, play fast, play well together and have fun,” he added.
It’s the type of unified defensive effort that the Broncos will look to put together in order to slow down a Chargers team that has won five consecutive games. And while he didn’t play in Denver’s 27-20 loss to the Chargers in December, nor the Broncos’ 28-20 win at San Diego in Week 10, the efficient manner in which the Chargers offense has functioned during the winning streak has jumped out to Bailey as he has watched them play.
“One thing I have noticed, and I think everybody has noticed, they limit the number of passes because their run game is so effective,” Bailey said. “When you run the ball that effectively, you get a lot of third-and-shorts and a lot of clock just running. So you don’t have to do as much in the passing game. They’re taking of advantage of it the old-school way. It’s been effective up to this point, so I don’t see them stopping.”
The Chargers effectively achieved that in their win over the Broncos in Week 15, gaining 177 yards on the ground – a loss that Bailey said could be considered a wake-up call, but that he noted ultimately serves as a reminder for how well the Broncos must play on Sunday to ensure a different outcome.
“You could look at it that way, but we know going into this game they’re capable of beating us,” he said. “We’ve got to bring our A-game to win, period. I don’t think anybody is going to overlook this team.”
One thing remains certain: there is no taking this for granted, not for a 15-year veteran readying himself for another run at the postseason.
“These opportunities like this don’t come around that often,” he said. “This will be my third year in a row in the playoffs, which is rare for a lot of teams. I feel good about where we are right now. I’m just looking forward to this game.”