FOXBOROUGH -- A little less than a year ago, Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey stood on the
sideline at Gillette Stadium in an oversized blue and orange parka that could hardly contain his frustration.
A groin tear chased Bailey from the field that night, but the injury was the least of his concerns. Bailey's pain came from watching a hapless Denver defense give up five touchdowns over the final three quarters, resulting in a 41-7 thumping of his team by the Patriots.
Bailey wasn't bashful in voicing his frustration after the game, which he recounted to the New England media on Wednesday. "I remember going down in that game, and even as you sit on the sideline, you can really just tell how bad guys want it, and I didn't feel that," said Bailey. "It bothered me a lot and obviously I showed that after the game. I hate to be the guy that sits on the sidelines and talks about it, but I feel like I've earned my stripes enough to really sit back and criticize people when I see things going wrong because I want to win and I can't have people half-assing it on the field."
As the Patriots and Broncos prepare to clash again Sunday at Invesco Field, Bailey isn't running his mouth anymore. In fact, a revamped Broncos defense, which has led Denver to an impressive 4-0 start under first-year coach Josh McDaniels, has him smiling.
"Well, it's funny," said Bailey. "I don't have to say much at all this year. We have guys that want it. That's definitely a start."
Plus, the 11th-year veteran is healthy and on his way toward earning a ninth Pro Bowl appearance, with 21 tackles so far. Last week against the Cowboys, Bailey made a highlight-worthy interception inside the Dallas red zone, then knocked away a potential game-tying pass in the end zone with a second remaining to seal Denver's victory.
The Broncos' defense has given up just 26 points this season, the best in the league. That's one point less than the Patriots scored last week against a vaunted Ravens defense. Atlanta, which has allowed 53 points, is a distant second.
Just a year ago, the Broncos surrendered an average of 28 points per game. So what's the secret to their turnaround?
"We got rid of a lot of bad apples and we brought in a lot of good ones, and I think that that was
the key to really getting this thing turned around," said Bailey. "You talk about the addition of Brian Dawkins, Andre' Goodman, Renaldo Hill, Andre Davis... I don't understand why their teams let them go, first of all, because they're great leaders and they're great players as well. So, they just brought that attitude with them, and it's rubbing off on a lot of guys."
Ex-49ers coach Mike Nolan, now the Broncos' defensive coordinator, helped overhaul the unit, installing a base 3-4 defense that has helped players such as outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (league-high eight sacks) blossom. The Broncos also added depth up front by bringing in former Patriots lineman Le Kevin Smith as well as Vonnie Holliday and Ronald Fields.
"They have 30 new players on their team this year," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. "You see
that secondary, with Goodman and Reynaldo Hill and Champ and Dawkins. Those are talented players. Dumervil's got eight sacks. They rush the passer. D.J. Williams has been here, and he's been as productive a linebacker as there is. I think, up and down, that defense, they have very complementary players. They cover, they're very athletic, they do a lot of things with their front. You're not going to get comfortable out there as an offense."
Which is exactly what Bailey and Co. hope continues Sunday.
"The key to their offense is Brady," said Bailey. "It seems like every week he gets more and more comfortable coming off that injury and ... boy, I hope we can find a way to rattle him this week, because he's looking better and better every week."
The Broncos shouldn't count on Brady throwing in Bailey's direction as brazenly as the Cowboys did last week.
"[Bailey is] a very smart player," said Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker. "He's been around for a long time and has great ball skills. It's amazing, that play he made against Dallas [in the final moments]. You can't go to sleep on this guy. You have to make sure you're running great routes,
going through and catching the ball."
Added Brady: "I was watching [the Dallas game] and I think there's a reason why Champ's been to eight Pro Bowls. He makes those plays. He's made them against us. ... He takes advantage of any mistakes by the offense. A bad route or a bad throw, he's going to make the interception. He's not going to knock it away, he's going to intercept the ball. He's one of the very best in the history of the league at playing cornerback. He plays well against all styles of receivers, too. It's not like you go in there saying, 'Let's figure out if Champ can beat us,' because he usually can."
Brady knows Bailey's game-changing abilities all too well. Bailey's end zone interception of Brady in a 2006 playoff game in Denver helped produce New England's first playoff loss of the 2000s.
Patriots fans can take solace in the fact that, as much as Bailey's interception that night dashed New England's hopes, being run down from behind at the 1-yard line in that game by Benjamin Watson still haunts Bailey.
"I still hear about that, to this day, nobody ever let me live that one down," said Bailey. "The crazy thing is that we both went to [the University of] Georgia, so I'm thinking to myself, 'Why can't [Watson] just let an old Georgia boy score on that play?' But he just showed what type of player he is on that play, and I think that even Belichick said that was one of the greatest plays he's seen, even in a loss."
Chris Forsberg is a reporter for ESPNBoston.com.