In all but three contests this season, the 49ers have bested opponents with a peculiar — yet familiar — combination.
The 2000 Super Bowl champ Baltimore Ravens continue to serve as evidence that a low-scoring team can still win via stout defensive play. And where San Francisco has struggled at times offensively, its defense, to put it bluntly, has been dominant.
It’s a defense drenched with Pro Bowlers and standout rookies. And inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman is neither a rookie nor a Pro Bowler, though his numbers this year suggests he deserves to be the latter.
In terms of tackles, the calendar year of 2011, though now technically expired, has been a pleasant one for the man they call “Bow.” And with Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith grabbing defensive headlines, the second-year man out of Penn State has been somewhat relegated as “the other guy.”
“Penn State was then, the NFL is now,” said Bowman, who will be making his first trip to the postseason when the Niners step onto the gridiron at Candlestick Park on Jan. 14 against an opponent yet to be named. “I just want to keep getting better.”
And better is what Bowman has become.
From only tallying 38 solo tackles last season, Bowman topped his team’s stat chart this year with 111 solo tackles along with 32 assists in his 16 starts. And with having helped boost his team into the postseason, the 23-year-old is doing a fine job masking — if he has any — his nerves as the playoffs await.
“Every game this season has been like a playoff game, that’s because we haven’t been there in a long time,” he said. “We don’t have any room to get complacent or satisfied, we just want to keep playing our game and see where we end up.”
Complacent is what some feared San Francisco would become after seizing the NFC West crown last month, marking their first playoff appearance since 2002. And despite having a mirrored record to that of New Orleans, the 49ers won enough against conference opponents to earn the NFC’s No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye.
That bye — at times — seemed to be in doubt throughout the last two weeks, where San Francisco posted narrow wins over Seattle and St. Louis. In their 34-27 win last week against the Rams, the Niners’ defense stonewalled their opponents’ surge in the fourth quarter, largely in part to Bowman’s painful sack on quarterback Kellen Clemens. That knocked Clemens out of the game. And thus New Orleans was knocked to the No. 3 seed.
But as to how important the bye week is, for Bowman, the answer is rather simple.
“It’s important, I think, for a lot of veteran guys,” he said. “But I know if we had to play this week, we’d be ready.”