AS FAR AS old school--new school matchups go, Peyton Manning versus Russell Wilson will get all the pub this week, but the reality is that the two quarterbacks won't share the field until their postgame handshake. No, they've got nothing on Wilson against defensive back Champ Bailey, another Broncos elder who, at 35, is finally playing in his first Super Bowl.
When the Redskins chose Bailey out of Georgia with the seventh pick in the 1999 draft, Pete Carroll was coaching the Patriots (USC was still two years away), the Seahawks played in the AFC, and their stadium had a lid on it. Bailey's early teammates included Darrell Green and Deion Sanders, who would come to be regarded as the Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln on the Mount Rushmore of shutdown corners, even though the gap between their playing styles was as yawning as the South Dakota prairie: Green liked to get physical, while the ball-hawking, contact-averse Sanders excelled in space. Their common ground was speed, an effortless means to their ends.
Bailey represented the new wave of cornerbacks: a 6-foot, 190-pound, 4.2 40 sprinter who could tackle and cover. And over the years he'd tack on career hacks—how to break down film, how to conserve energy in the weight room, how to avoid injuries on the field—learned from Green, Sanders, seven different coaches, 10 position assistants and 11 defensive coordinators. Now, says Bailey, who's No. 3 among active interceptors, with 52, "If a coach wants me to play more zone, I can do it. More man, I can do it. Bump-and-run. Playing off. I can do it all. It never hurt me to have all those coaches. I wanted to pick those guys' brains as much as I could."
With that varied experience, Bailey was well prepared for his latest move, away from the edges and inside to nickelback, where he's closer to the help provided by safeties and linebackers. Typically it's a move that a cornerback makes maybe twice: on his way into the league and on the way out. To be fair, Bailey's repositioning this year had less to do with any erosion in talent and more to do with a preseason Lisfranc sprain in his left ankle—the same injury that cost him 11 games in 2013. (Until this season he had missed only 14 games over 14 years, 12 of which included trips to the Pro Bowl, a record for a cornerback.) It's a move that affords Bailey protection as he rounds back into form; in return, the veteran reinforces a Denver defense that, largely because of injuries, fell from third best against the pass last season to sixth worst in 2013. "You know when he's out there because he talks to you real smooth and lets you know everything is all right," says second-year weakside linebacker Danny Trevathan. "You just get a good vibe from him."
Bailey's calming influence was evident on Sunday. Typical of a corner of his caliber, more telling than his line score (three tackles) was the fact that he helped hold Patriots slot receiver Danny Amendola catchless. In fact, Amendola was targeted just once, his fewest looks all year.
Not too shabby, considering that the last significant reps Bailey took at nickel came during his second year in Washington, when Green would come in on third downs, moving the youngster inside. To help with the transition back to that spot, Bailey has leaned on his younger brother, Boss, a former NFL linebacker who over five years with the Lions and Broncos became well-versed in the challenges of covering wideouts, tailbacks and tight ends coming across the middle. "It's not like when you're on the outside and you can see the quarterback," says Boss. "The slot takes a different kind of discipline, a different kind of thought process. Stay deep-to-short; [don't] jump on anything deep."
And on the rare occasions on Sunday when Bailey did find himself in coverage outside? Only once did New England go after him: Receiver Aaron Dobson wended into the deep secondary on an end-around fake and Bailey played him perfectly, his outside positioning providing leverage to the safety over the top. Tom Brady's pass fell incomplete—a throwback moment.
With Denver's win, Bailey finds himself in a position shared over the last decade by the likes of Charles Woodson and Ed Reed: one win away from solidifying his Hall of Fame legacy. (Woodson and Reed each ticked that box in wins.) Never in five previous trips to the postseason has Bailey come this close to the Lombardi Trophy. If Wilson plays around, he could find himself bent over Old Man Bailey's knee.
CHAMP CHANGE Bailey's no chump: His move to nickelback came only after the 12-time Pro Bowl corner was injured.