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 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.'"