|National Football League|
Linebackers lead way for 49ers into NFC title game
- Cowboys release Sam from practice squad
- Rice's appeal hearing set for Nov. 5-6
- Spiller may return in 2014, Tanner signs
- Jets sign WR Kerley to 4-year extension
- Colts WR Wayne waiting for MRI results
By JOSH DUBOW
SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) From the pick six that closed Candlestick to a pair of goal-line stands in Carolina, it seems like whenever San Francisco needs a big play from its defense one of the 49ers' decorated linebackers steps up.
With Pro Bowlers NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks playing alongside talented pass rusher Aldon Smith on coordinator Vic Fangio's defense, the Niners' version of the fearsome foursome has played a major part in their advancement to the NFC title game on Sunday night in Seattle.
Bowman, Willis, Brooks and Smith have combined for seven sacks, one forced fumble and an interception in road playoff wins in Green Bay and Carolina that set up the showdown with the Seahawks with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line.
"We just try to stay together and lead this defense," Bowman said. "We all can do special things that a lot of guys can't do in this league. Vic's just done a great job drawing up the right plays and what he wants us to do out there. We're blessed to have all four of us on the same page."
What makes this unit so effective is how well they work together. Smith and Brooks are elite pass rushers, able to chase down quarterbacks with their speed and overpower blockers with their strength.
Willis and Bowman are the do-everything inside backers, who plug holes against the run, blitz when needed and chase running backs and tight ends in coverage.
While Willis came into the year as the most decorated of the bunch as a five-time All-Pro and Smith the most feared with 33 1/2 sacks his first two seasons, it is Bowman who has led the group this season when the Niners needed it most.
Smith missed five games to receive substance abuse treatment and Willis showed a few signs of slowing down, turning Bowman into the on-field leader of the group.
He was named first-team All-Pro for the third straight season and has been mentioned as a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year after recording a career-high five sacks, two interceptions, five forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. That earned him the ultimate praise from Willis.
"I said, `Man, you're having the kind of year that linebackers want to have. I know you're most certainly having the kind of year that I would love to have,'" Willis said. "He's my brother. I'm always going to be his biggest fan. He's my teammate. I'm just glad to see him do well. When one of us does well, we all do well. That's how we think as a team."
The crowning moment of Bowman's year came in the regular-season home finale against Atlanta. With the 49ers in danger of losing the final scheduled game at Candlestick Park and having their playoff status put in doubt, Bowman delivered one of the most impressive plays of the season.
It started with him blitzing up the middle against Matt Ryan. But after getting the center to commit, Bowman retreated and was in perfect position when Tramaine Brock broke up a slant pass to Harry Douglas. Bowman grabbed the ball out of the air and ran 89 yards for the touchdown that sealed the 34-24 victory and clinched the playoffs for the Niners.
"He just comes up big all the time," defensive lineman Ray McDonald said. "It's paying off for him because he's a hard-working guy, he's always on top of his game."
Bowman was at it again in Sunday's 23-10 win over Carolina, fighting off two blockers before tackling Cam Newton at the 1 late in the second quarter. After a sack by Brooks and another goal-line stop by Bowman, the Panthers had to settle for a field goal.
San Francisco drove for the go-ahead score in the closing seconds of the half and never trailed again. That was the second impressive goal-line stand as Brooks stopped Newton on fourth down from the 1 earlier in the second quarter.
Back-to-back sacks by Bowman and Brooks knocked the Panthers out of field goal range in the closing minutes of the third quarter in what proved to be their last chance to stay in the game.
Throw in an interception earlier in the game by Willis that set up a field goal, and it was a dominating day.
"We take pride on keeping teams out of the end zone," Bowman said. "They're going to make big plays, they're NFL players, too. But if we can hold up at the goal line four downs in a row that lets you know we're here to play and it's going to be a long day."
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
Updated January 14, 2014