ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Champ Bailey had taken the moment for granted.
Like so many NFL players, he had assumed playoff opportunities would always be on the horizon. Never did the 35-year-old imagine that his quest for postseason success would be so challenging -- and Super Bowl appearances so elusive.
"When you get that close, you don't think you're far away," the Broncos defensive back said Friday, two days before he and his teammates flew to New Jersey for Super Bowl XVLIII against the Seahawks next Sunday at MetLife Stadium. "You think you're going to get there again."
Bailey's resume speaks for itself: an NFL record-tying 12 Pro Bowls, seven All-Pro selections and 52 career interceptions. But after 15 seasons, he's determined to claim the one thing that has eluded him until now.
"This is like the ultimate for him," said Mike Adams, Bailey's teammate and close friend, who also will make his first Super Bowl appearance in 10 seasons. "This is the only thing he's missing.
"He has money. He can play for free and still be OK. So it's not the money, it's not the Pro Bowls. You name it, he's got it. He just doesn't have that ring, that hardware."
No one in the Broncos' locker room has longed for a Lombardi Trophy longer than Bailey. After five seasons in Washington, he arrived in Denver in 2004 via a trade for running back Clinton Portis. The following year, the Broncos advanced to the AFC Championship Game, but lost to the Steelers, 34-17, in Denver.
It took the Broncos six years to reach the postseason again. And with Tim Tebow as their quarterback in 2011, the host Broncos stunned the Steelers in an overtime win in the wild-card round. But the next week, Denver fell to the Patriots, 45-10, in the divisional round.
With the 2012 arrival of Peyton Manning, the Broncos seemed poised to go the distance, but their 38-35 double-overtime loss to the Ravens in the divisional round derailed their Super Bowl hopes.
It also gave Bailey's critics plenty of ammunition. Twice he was burned by receiver Torrey Smith, who caught three passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns in the game. It was the first time a Ravens player had ever caught two TD passes in a single postseason game.
Some questioned whether Bailey was too old. Others said he should hang up his cleats for good. His nagging foot injury this past season only helped to strengthen those arguments. He played in only three games -- eight quarters, to be exact -- in the Broncos' first 14 contests. But Bailey always believed better things were to come.
He returned with two weeks left in the regular season, and although it was in a limited capacity, his presence has been felt on the field -- particularly in last week's AFC Championship Game win over the Patriots.
"He's got great cover skills, great ball skills, he's a tremendous athlete. He's a smart player," Manning said. " . . . It's been great to practice against him the past two years -- the receivers get better and the quarterback gets better."
Without question, Bailey, like his quarterback, is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Broncos coach John Fox said. "It is pretty mind-boggling to think that he hasn't been to a Super Bowl yet," Fox said. "I know it is important to him . . . He has meant a lot to us and we are trying to pay him back for that."
The soft-spoken Bailey tried -- unsuccessfully, of course -- to steer interviews away from his personal quest for that elusive Super Bowl trophy. In many ways, he's the anti-Richard Sherman. Bailey may not be as talented as the Seahawks' shutdown corner, but by no means is he the brash talker Sherman is.
Despite all of his accolades, Bailey has never been one to boast. And that's why his teammates are even more determined to win the Super Bowl for him.
"That's the reason I stuck around here," Bailey said. "Because I knew it was coming at some point -- we'd get a shot. Here we are. Guys want to say it's about me, but it's really not. I appreciate it, but it's not about me."
With a win over the Seahawks, Bailey can forever cement his legacy in Denver -- and, more importantly, among NFL cornerbacks.
"Oh, man, that would be a picturesque moment," former teammate Brian Dawkins said of Bailey finally winning a Super Bowl. " . . . Tears of joy comes to mind."
For the past 15 years, Bailey has prepared himself for this moment. But now that he's here, just days away from the biggest game of his career, he's not quite sure how he'll react.
"I don't think there is anybody in this locker room that doesn't understand how important this is," he said.
" . . . I know I have another game and I know it's a big one. But I don't know what that means really, if it's sunk in. I know what's in front of me, but I'm trying to stay level-headed and prepare like I have been all year."