San Francisco 49ers all-world linebacker Patrick Willis is the team's most recognizable face on defense and may one day share a spot in Canton with the likes of Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert and Chuck Bednarik.
Though Willis has earned the nickname “bam-bam” from Chad Ochocinco for his ability to virtually hitting everything in sight, he still might have a greater attribute. A fiery speech by the passionate team leader on Saturday night resonated with his teammates in Sunday's 28-24 win over the Falcons in the NFC Championship.
Willis knew his teammates wouldn't fold despite an early 17-0 second-quarter deficit.
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“One thing about the team all year long is that we continued to fight,” Willis told Fox Sports after the game. “I told my team we all have a hand in this.”
A number of Willis' less-heralded teammates played a pivotal role in helping the 49ers capture their first NFC title since 1994. Ironically, linebackers Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman, not Willis, both had key pass breakups in preventing the Falcons from converting a game-winning touchdown in the final minutes. Had Brooks not swatted a Matt Ryan pass intended for Roddy White, the Falcons may have taken the lead. On the ensuing play, Bowman deflected a fourth-down pass in White's direction to get off the field.
When 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers arrived in San Francisco in 2011, the former first-round pick was greeted with skepticism. In six seasons with the Redskins, Rogers had largely underperformed. Rogers, though, made the Pro Bowl later that year and has emerged as one of the top corners in the league.
On Sunday, Rogers showed why. The Falcons had little trouble stretching the field in the first half, but Rogers made a breakup in the end zone on a deep pass for White late in the third quarter. Then early in the fourth, Rogers' open-field tackle on Tony Gonzalez on a third down in the left flat pinned the Falcons deep in their own end.
Aldon Smith, another first-round pick, distinguished himself on Sunday even without a sack. With the Falcons in field goal range several plays after Rogers' deflection, Smith recovered a Matt Ryan fumble. The menacing linebacker also forced Ryan to hold onto the ball an instant too long on a fourth quarter incompletion. Julio Jones gained separation on a double-move and could have hauled in a long gain if Ryan had released the ball on time.
Willis finished with a team-high 11 tackles, but refused to take any credit for leading his team to the Super Bowl.
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“The last two years all we've done is play as a team,” Willis told Fox.
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