SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Aldon Smith appreciates these playoffs a little more.
A quarter of the season spent away from football's daily rigors, and the teammates and coaches he considers family, to deal with a serious personal matter will do that.
"Any time you take time off away from it, it makes you miss it," Smith said this week. "And it means that much more to you."
Smith took a five-game leave of absence from the 49ers to undergo treatment for substance abuse earlier this season. He is encouraged by the strides he has made to better himself off the football field that put life — and his work — in perspective.
Now, Smith's top goal is to return to the dominant defender he used to be only a year ago, and will look to chase down Aaron Rodgers in the wild-card playoffs for San Francisco (12-4) at Green Bay on Sunday, when he will be matched up against rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari.
"We're winning, we're in the playoffs, things are going good," Smith said. "What else could I ask for right now?"
Smith emerged as one of the NFL's most-feared pass rushers in 2012. He had a franchise-record 19.5 sacks a year ago, but failed to record a sack in his final six games including the team's postseason Super Bowl run.
Just getting the chance to be back in the playoffs is something Smith cherishes right now, along with all the support he has received in the locker room that helped immensely with his comeback.
Smith said he hasn't had any alcohol since before his Sept. 20 DUI arrest, and he isn't craving it. When he rejoined the team Nov. 5, he insisted he was on the path to lifelong sobriety and he hasn't changed that stance as he continues to receive outside help in that process.
"It's been a while, since before the incident," Smith said of drinking, speaking in a candid interview with The Associated Press. "It definitely is (in the past). I'm just focused on moving forward, getting to where I want to get and accomplishing the things I want to accomplish. Every time I'm on the practice field, I'm doing something to just get better. I'm continuing to work toward the goal. I'm excited and I've got to keep doing it."
The 24-year-old Smith sought treatment at an out-of-state inpatient rehab facility this fall.
He spent a low-key New Year's Eve watching his girlfriend host a show on MTV, and didn't feel the urge to party.
"New Year's is just another day. I enjoy it like anybody else should enjoy it," he said. "It's another day to be thankful for."
Smith played in a 27-7 home loss to the Colts on Sept. 22 two days after he was arrested and jailed on suspicion of DUI and marijuana possession. After the game, he publicly apologized for his behavior and later announced he would leave for treatment.