A Super Bowl berth was on the line in the raucous Georgia Dome this past Sunday.
The San Francisco 49ers had a precarious four-point advantage over Atlanta in the waning moments of the NFC Championship Game. Falcons Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan, who engineered a last-second win over Seattle the week before, looked like he was about to do it again, driving his team all the way to the Niners' 15-yard line at the two-minute warning.
San Francisco's defense, particularly its linebackers, had other ideas, however.
Coming out of the timeout, Ryan was flushed left and slammed into the turf by Ahmad Brooks while completing a short pass to Jason Snelling. Ryan sprained the AC joint in his non-throwing shoulder on the play and was in obvious discomfort with two chances to keep the drive and Atlanta's season alive.
On 3rd-and-4 from the 10-yard line, it was Brooks again, breaking up a Ryan pass, before his running mate, NaVorro Bowman, effectively ended the Falcons' hopes, draping one of the best receivers in the game, Roddy White, and knocking away Matty Ice's fourth-down pass.
"It was a tough down in distance," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Wednesday when reliving the sequence. "They only needed four yards and they had two downs to get it. We played some tight coverage and rushed four guys. And they executed well. It was a big batted pass by Ahmad on the third down. It was a big play by him on the second down when he hit the quarterback. We just played tight coverage and rushed four and it worked out."
Bowman's play in space against one of the NFL's top receivers was really special.
"It was a real good play," Fangio said. "He was in coverage on a receiver. The receiver ran a short route and good tight coverage, good legal coverage and cut the guy off and batted the ball down."
Brooks and Bowman, of course, aren't even San Francisco's best linebackers. That honor has to belong to six-time All-Pro Patrick Willis or perhaps, second-year pass rushing standout Aldon Smith, a serious Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
The linebacker position is an embarrassment of riches for Fangio.
"I'm very appreciative to have them on the team that I happen to be with," Fangio said as his defense started preparing for Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens on Feb. 3.
He should be.
Brooks is probably the runt of the litter so to speak, and he was named a second-team All-Pro this season.
Willis and Bowman are a pair of inside thumpers with Willis serving as the team's defensive leader. The Ole Miss product was a Butkus Award winner in college and hit the ground running in the NFL, winning defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2007 and being named All-Pro in every season since.
Bowman started a little slower as a third-round pick out of Penn State in 2010, but by his second NFL season, he led the 49ers in tackles and was on the All- Pro team right next to Willis, something he repeated again in 2012.
Smith was the final piece to the puzzle, arriving in the City by the Bay as the seventh overall pick out of Missouri in 2011. A former defensive lineman at Mizzou, Smith made the transition to edge pass rusher in San Francisco's 3-4 scheme quickly, finishing his rookie season with 14 sacks, first in the NFL among all freshmen and a franchise record for first-year players.
Smith only upped his production in 2012, notching the franchise's single- season sack mark with 19 1/2, and he is expected to battle with Houston's J.J. Watt and Denver's Von Miller for Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Down the stretch and into the playoffs, blocking Smith has been paramount for opposing offensive coordinators, who often devise schemes to chip him before settling into a double team. That has limited Smith's production but not his effect on the game.
"He hasn't had a sack in five games and we've won four of them," Fangio said.
The extra attention Smith receives makes things easier for Brooks and Bowman to make the splashy plays like they did in Atlanta.
The Ravens figure to pose a different and more difficult test for the Niners' linebacking cops in the big game, however. Baltimore is one of the few teams in football who can play with the same physicality Frisco brings to the dance.
"Yes, could be," Fangio said when asked if the Ravens were more physical than some of the other teams San Francisco has been playing. "They've got a really good blocking fullback in (Vonta) Leach. And he's dominated some linebackers around the league, inside linebackers in particular. And we've better be ready to take him on."
That and the big-play ability Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco provides is what Fangio is focusing on.
"I've always liked Joe Flacco," Fangio said. "He's got a big arm. He throws the ball effortlessly. The game isn't too big for him. He's calm. He's confident. And he's capable of making all the throws."
Baltimore, though, might have the bigger problem in trying to deal with four Pro Bowl-caliber linebackers.
"It's always good to have good players," Fangio said when talking about his 'backers. "I really enjoy working with them. That's the thing that I hope nobody loses in talking about them. These guys are good people. And they're fun to be around. I enjoy coaching them. They like to be coached. They want to play good. They have pride in their performance. And they're a good group."
The Ravens just might call them a great group in 10 days.