SANTA CLARA, Calif. — On the night NaVorro Bowman delivered the signature play of the San Francisco 49ers’ season, a playoff-clinching 89-yard interception return at Candlestick Park, the linebacker had company.
Patrick Willis was racing 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.”
And 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 how it’s been all season: Bowman and Willis matching each other stride for stride. The rangy duo will need to 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 — 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, the 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 on 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 143) 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.
“I mean, shoot, anytime Pat is on the field I know that he’s going to do his job and I’m going to do my job,” Bowman said. “That’s really what’s been working out for us.
“He’s always been our leader. 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 No. 1-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. “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.”
Willis, like Bowman, said the key to their success is working in unison. He said that before a snap, he might check in with Bowman about whether it’s time to go for broke and look for a big play — such as jumping a route in search of an interception.
The funny thing, Willis said, is that they’re always insisting that the other guy seize the day.
“Sometimes I tell him, ‘Hey, just go get it. I’m going to cover you,’” Willis said. “And vice versa. Sometimes he’ll tell me the same thing.
“It’s never, like, ‘Man, let me go do this because I can make the plays.’ It’s whatever formation they give us and what makes our defense better at that point in time is how we work. That’s what makes a good tandem.”
Against the Green Bay Packers last week, Bowman led the 49ers with 10 tackles while Willis had eight. The 49ers held quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a career playoff-low of 177 passing yards, and though running back Eddie Lacy hammered out 81 yards, his longest rush of the day was 8 yards.
Next up is the explosive — and well-rested — Newton, whose 2,032 rush yards over his first three years are most ever by a quarterback.
The 49ers know that containing him will hinge on the duo that pound for pound — LB for LB — is the best defensive tandem in the NFL.
“We hold each other accountable,” Willis said. “When we look at each other, we know that we’re ready to go.”