Champ Bailey has seen hundreds of teammates signed and cut, and two head coaches fired in the eight long years since he was last in this situation.

Eight years since the Broncos played in the AFC Championship Game, eight years since the Broncos lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, eight years since the Broncos last had a chance at the Super Bowl.

"I never thought it would take this long," Bailey told USA TODAY Sports Friday afternoon after his team's final practice of the week.

Bailey's 2013 season has been a nightmare, the most frustrating of his career. He struggled for months to return from a foot injury he suffered in the second preseason game. He made two failed comeback attempts before pain in his right foot forced him back to the sidelines. When he finally returned for the final two weeks of the regular season, he was used in a limited role.

For three games, the Broncos have had Bailey on the football equivalent of a pitch-count. After starting all but one of the first 218 games (including postseason) of his career, Bailey was a situational player, on the field for roughly half of Denver's defensive snaps as the slot corner.

That will change Sunday against the New England Patriots.

"[The pitch count] doesn't exist this week," Bailey said. "Whatever it takes."

Bailey's expected return to the starting lineup at his familiar left cornerback spot is the most logical solution for a Denver defense desperate to replace Chris Harris. The third-year corner tore his ACL in last week's divisional round win against San Diego.

In a season that has been defined by chaos for the Broncos defense, Bailey's return has been a welcome change. This is a defense that played the first six games without its best pass rusher -- Von Miller -- who was serving a drug-program-related suspension. Later, Denver lost starting defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson (hip), defensive end Derek Wolfe (illness), safety Rahim Moore (lower leg) and Miller (ACL) to injuries.