SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — In recent weeks, NaVorro Bowman has received a pair of high compliments from two important men in his life.
Close friend and fellow linebacker Patrick Willis told Bowman, the teammate he considers a brother, that he is having a tremendous season — a year Willis himself would love to have.
In addition, 49ers boss Jed York approached Bowman to say he noticed how the star defender avoided overly celebrating an 89-yard touchdown return that sealed a Dec. 23 win against Atlanta in Candlestick Park's finale. Rather, he cherished making up for an earlier miscue on an onside kick that could have cost his team the game.
Bowman appreciates all the good will and thoughtfulness. There has been plenty this year as he leads the defense for San Francisco (12-4), which opens the playoffs with an NFC wild-card matchup at Green Bay on Sunday.
Most notably, Bowman is thrilled to be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, which is announced Super Bowl week.
"It means a lot. When I came into this league, I was drafted in the third round. When you're drafted in the third round, people don't expect much out of you," Bowman said. "It took a part out of me and put a chip on my shoulder and had me wanting to prove myself. That's what I've been doing. I learned a lot from Pat, but I don't want to stay in anyone's shadow. All of those things played a part. It just shows I'm getting better every single year, I'm not staying the same. A Defensive Player of the Year has to be consistent."
With all due respect to Willis, Bowman wants nothing more than to establish himself separately from his four-year teammate. Bowman has emerged as the 49ers' most dominant linebacker.
"I told him the other day, coming back after the Arizona game, 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 Wednesday. "But 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."
What Bowman accomplished in December alone went unmatched by any player all season: three sacks, two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
"The way the league's set up, the month of December separates the good teams, separates the good players from the great players," Bowman said. "If that's the way my body works, if I get stronger as the season gets on, I'll take it. It's just the preparation every single week, staying in the weight room and not saying, 'It's the middle of the season, I'm not going to lift as hard.'"
The 25-year-old Bowman, drafted out of Penn State in 2010, had 149 tackles, two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble last season. He has built on that this year, earning a Pro Bowl selection. He has 145 tackles, five sacks, two interceptions and four forced fumbles.
The play everyone will remember most leaves its mark among the great moments in more than four decades of them at Candlestick — that 89-yard interception return with Matt Ryan driving the Falcons.
"It's the biggest highlight. Just hearing linemen, even DBs, they dream of having a play and picking the ball off and having all green grass in front of them," said Bowman, signed to a five-year contract extension worth $45.25 million in November 2012. "I can only imagine what they were feeling and how exciting it was.
"I made a huge mistake early in that game. (CEO) Jed York said he noticed my energy after the game wasn't, 'Yeah, I scored an interception for 89 yards,' it was, 'I'm glad I made that play to make up for what I did.' As a defensive player who looks to be one of the best, you have to eliminate being down on yourself because no one's going to be perfect throughout the whole game. But you can make it better if you can stay on it."
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is quick to point out Bowman's influence on the defense.
"The last couple years he's had the recognition and credit he deserves for the type of player that he is," Rodgers said Wednesday. "It's a talented defense with a lot of big names. He's one of the top players in the league. The film doesn't lie, when you watch the film they're a stout defense. He pops out every time you turn the film on."
Bowman and his teammates want to take last season's special run one step further and win the franchise a sixth championship.
"We can do something special if we all stay together and stay on the same page," Bowman said.
Notes: CB Carlos Rogers (right hamstring) didn't practice. "We'll see, sore yesterday, better today, continue to see how the healing goes," coach Jim Harbaugh said.
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