ENGLEWOOD The last time the Broncos and Patriots met in the playoffs, Champ Bailey returned an interception 100 yards, sparking a big Denver win and handing Tom Brady his first postseason defeat after 10 wins and three titles.
Six years later, they meet again this weekend, both men a lot longer in the tooth but just as transcendent.
At 33, Bailey was just named to his 11th Pro Bowl, extending his record for cornerbacks. He helped the Broncos (9-8) reach the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
Hes really a playmaker for them, Brady said. Hes a great leader. Hes everything you look for in a football player.
Thats pretty much what Bailey said about Brady.
Hes smart, accurate; he has all the tools, Bailey said. Hes tough, confident everything you want in a player.
At 34, Brady threw 39 touchdown passes, the second-highest total of his brilliant career, and he led the Patriots (13-3) to the top seed in the AFC by winning his last eight starts, including a blowout at Denver on Dec. 18.
The heavily favored Patriots are 8-2 in home playoff games under Brady, whose 14-5 postseason record is tied with Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw for the best mark in league history.
Bailey and the Broncos, however, will be out for their seventh win in 10 tries against him. No other team has had that much success against the two-time MVP and perennial Pro Bowler.
Still, the Broncos captain readily acknowledges he doesnt particularly enjoy facing Brady.
Its more frustrating when youre out there because hes so good. Hes one of the best ever, Bailey said. I think a lot of people want to find out whos going to be the next guy, but he always reminds everybody hes still the best.
Brady said hes not thrilled to see Bailey again, either.
I wish I could have him on our team and not play against him. Im tired of playing against him, Brady said. He definitely challenges us. He is a huge factor in every game that we play against them. I have a ton of respect for him, and you always have to be careful throwing the ball to his side of the field.
Thats what happened back on Jan. 14, 2006, when Bailey made the play that ended New Englands dominating dynasty along with Denvers years of playoff misery.
Trying to become the first team to win three consecutive Super Bowls, the Patriots were driving for the go-ahead score in the third quarter. But on third down from the Denver 5, Bailey stepped in front of Troy Brown in the end zone for the pick. He sprinted down the Broncos sideline.
With the goal line almost in reach, Bailey, huffing and puffing, slowed and was bringing the ball down to his hip when tight end Ben Watson caught up and knocked him down, sending the ball flying out of bounds at the 1 or was it through the end zone?
With Bailey lying on his back, grimacing and gasping for air, Patriots coach Bill Belichick challenged the call, saying the ball flew out of the end zone, not at the 1, which would have given New England the ball back on a touchback.
The challenge was unsuccessful, and Mike Anderson scored to give Denver a 17-6 lead on its way to a 27-13 triumph, the Broncos first playoff win since John Elways second Super Bowl victory in 1999.
Considering how much they won the previous years, they were pretty much unbeatable, Bailey said. To get a play like that and to change the game, to get a win against a team like that, yes, its a special moment.
Still, Bailey cringes a bit at the thought of getting caught, although he jokingly takes solace in knowing it took a fellow Georgia Bulldogs alum to chase him down.
If anybodys going to do it, itd better be a guy from Georgia, Bailey said.
Baileys big play was one of five turnovers by the Patriots that day. The Broncos might need similar circumstances to upset New England on Saturday night.
The Broncos self-destructed in a 41-23 loss to the Patriots in Denver last month, committing a trio of turnovers in the second quarter that New England turned into 13 points, erasing what remained of an early nine-point deficit.
I expect us to play better, make it a little more difficult for them, Bailey said. But its Tom Brady. Hes good for a reason. I mean, hes won a lot of games, won a lot of big games, Super Bowls.
Theres the rub.
The most decorated cornerback in NFL history, Bailey never has been to a Super Bowl. A week after beating Brady in 06, the Broncos lost to Pittsburgh in the AFC championship and didnt return to the postseason party until this year.
Its a long shot, but Bailey would like nothing more than to have to skip his annual trip to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl on Jan. 29 so he could prepare for a Super Bowl a week later.
Well, it makes me feel like people still respect my game at this age, but I really dont put a lot of thought in the Pro Bowl too much, he said. Its just, I want to win a ring, and thats why I still play.