SANTA CLARA, Calif. — From the interception return for a touchdown that closed Candlestick to two goal-line stands in Carolina, it seems whenever San Francisco needs a big play from its defense one of the 49ers' decorated linebackers steps up.
With Pro Bowl picks NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks alongside talented pass rusher Aldon Smith on coordinator Vic Fangio's defense, the Niners' version of the fearsome foursome has played a major part in their reaching Sunday's NFC title game in Seattle.
Bowman, Willis, Brooks and Smith have combined for seven sacks, one forced fumble and an interception in road playoff wins in Green Bay and Carolina.
"We just try to stay together and lead this defense," Bowman said. "We all can do special things that a lot of guys can't do in this league. Vic's just done a great job drawing up the right plays and what he wants us to do out there. We're blessed to have all four of us on the same page."
Each member of the unit, under linebackers coach and former USF coach Jim Leavitt, brings different skills. Smith and Brooks are elite pass rushers who chase quarterbacks with their speed and overpower blockers with their strength. Willis and Bowman are do-everything inside backers, who plug holes against the run, blitz when needed and cover running backs and tight ends.
Willis, a five-time All-Pro, is the most decorated of the bunch and Smith had 33½ sacks his first two seasons, but Bowman has led the group this season. With Smith missing five games to receive substance abuse treatment and Willis showing a few signs of slowing, Bowman became the on-field leader.
He was named first-team All-Pro for the third straight year.
"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. "He's my brother. I'm always going to be his biggest fan."
Broncos: They signed free agent Marquice Cole to replace injured CB Chris Harris. Cole was released Dec. 26 by the Patriots, whom the Broncos host in Sunday's AFC championship. Harris went on IR after tearing his left ACL in Denver's 24-17 win over San Diego last weekend. Also, defensive end Derek Wolfe, out since suffering seizure-like symptoms on Nov. 29, went on IR and Denver promoted practice squad offensive tackle Vinston Painter.
Seahawks: The team said its decision to limit ticket sales for Sunday to certain states was due to concerns over ticket brokers. The Seahawks sold out a small allotment of available tickets — less than 3,000 — in less than 30 minutes Monday. The team has taken heat for excluding fans with billing addresses in California from purchasing tickets to Sunday's game between the Seahawks and San Francisco.