SANTA CLARA, Calif. — On the night of Dec. 23, as NaVorro Bowman delivered the signature play of the San Francisco 49ers’ season, a playoff berth-clinching 89-yard interception return at Candlestick Park, the linebacker had company.
Patrick Willis raced down the sideline right along with him, making sure that nobody from the Atlanta Falcons laid a hand on the teammate he calls “my brother.”
Not long after it was over, when the most dynamic linebackers in the NFL had time to catch their breath, Willis turned to his brother and told him:
“One day, when we’re old and gray, we’re going to look back on that play and say, ‘That’s when we were fast.’ ”
In a way, that’s the way it has been all season: Bowman and Willis matching each other stride for stride. The rangy duo must be at their sideline-to-sideline best Sunday when the 49ers face the Carolina Panthers in an NFC divisional-round game in Charlotte, N.C.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is a dual threat — the only player in NFL history to amass at least 50 touchdown passes and 25 rushing touchdowns in his first three seasons — and so much will depend on the 49ers’ dual inside linebackers to keep the Carolina offense in check.
How good has the 49ers’ tandem been? So good that Willis, a six-time All-Pro, has been relegated to second banana. And that’s fine with Banana No. 2.
“I told (Bowman) the other day, coming back after the Arizona game, ‘Man, you’re having the kind of year that linebackers want to have,’ ” Willis said. “I know he’s most certainly having the kind of year that I would love to have.”
In that Arizona game Dec. 29, the one that made Willis jealous, Bowman became the first 49ers player in 20 years to record a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception in the same game.
In all, Bowman ranked fifth in the NFL in total tackles (with 145) and led a defense that didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher all season.
“NaVorro has my vote for MVP of the league,” defensive tackle Ray McDonald said. “He just comes up big all the time.”
Bowman is quick to defer to the other guy, even after his crowd-rousing interception against the Falcons. The fourth-year player from Penn State said such plays are made possible only because he shares the field with a linebacker on a Hall of Fame path.
“He’s always been our leader,” Bowman said. “Anytime anything goes wrong out there on the field, Pat is out there getting everybody on the same page, and that’s the complete linebacker that he is.”
Pro Football Focus, which reviews every player on every play, created a metric for grading linebackers that accounts for their ability to rush the passer, cover receivers, stop the run and avoid penalties.
Their top-ranked linebacker in a 3-4 system (three down linemen, four linebackers) this season was Bowman.
Any guesses who finished second?
“He’s my brother. I’m always going to be his biggest fan,” Willis said of sharing the spotlight.