With the San Francisco 49ers set to play in Super Bowl XLVII, the franchise’s sixth all-time appearance in the game and first since 1995, Willis is still wrapping his mind around the whole situation.
“It’s really just surreal,” the six-time Pro Bowl linebacker told 95.7 The Game in his weekly radio show as part of the station’s 49ers Mondays. “I don’t know, it really hasn’t hit me yet.”
Thanks to sound defensive play and Willis’ sure-tackling in the second half of Sunday’s NFC title game against the Atlanta Falcons, the 49ers overcame a 17-point first-half deficit to beat the Falcons to earn the franchise’s first playoff road win since 1989.
Despite the joyous postgame scene, Willis couldn’t help but feel unsatisfied. That’s even after the standout linebacker posted a game-high 12 tackles against the Falcons.
“Honestly, this game here was one of those games where it felt like, ‘We won, what comes next?’” Willis explained. “Then it hits you, ‘Man, we’re really going to the Super Bowl – this is real.’”
Yes, the 49ers are really headed to the Super Bowl, but it would not have happened if not for the second-half shut out placed on Atlanta’s potent offense.
San Francisco forced two turnovers in the game’s final 30 minutes and eventually turned the Falcons over on downs with the home team looking for a go-ahead touchdown inside the two-minute warning.
But before the 49ers could turn in any of the previously mentioned game-changing plays, Willis said there was a laser-like focus being preached in the halftime locker room period where defensive coordinator Vic Fangio didn’t so much make adjustments, but reiterated his teachings.
“We’ve always known we’re a team that’s going to play for 60 minutes, it doesn’t matter what the situation is,” Willis detailed. “Coach (Harbaugh) talks about it all the time, adversity is going to hit, it’s how you respond that makes you the team that you are.”
Willis continued to explain how San Francisco’s 21-point comeback victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 4 of the 2011 season proved to the players that no deficit was insurmountable.
“We came back to win that game and from then we know we’re a team that’s going to fight, a team that’s going to play for 60 minutes,” Willis said, before pointing out how the experience in Philadelphia translated to Sunday’s win in Atlanta.
“We’re going to come back, we’re going to fight and we’re going to play for 60 minutes. All that matters is what’s on the scoreboard in the end.”
He was right.
“We weren’t all on the same page as a defense,” Willis admitted. “They gave us their best shot and they capitalized on our mistakes.”
For that reason, Fangio stressed calm play to his defense. He wanted his defensive unit to simply focus on making open-field tackles and playing the calls that were relayed from San Francisco’s sideline.
The trust in the 49ers coordinator was stressed the most on Bowman’s fourth-down pass breakup.
With Atlanta utilizing a bunch formation against the 49ers personnel, Bowman was responsible for defending star wide receiver Roddy White, a player that had 7 catches for 100 yards in the game. Bowman made sure there wasn't going to be an eighth reception.
Prior to the play, Willis and the defensive players understood that some defensive calls stress certain members of the defense more than others. In this case, it was on San Francisco’s other Pro Bowl linebacker, not named Willis.
“That situation, the hard down was on NaVorro,” Willis detailed. “Like we always say, we have complete confidence on the guys on defense and he made a big-time play.”
Bowman jammed White at the top of his short crossing route and was able to reach out and swat the ball away as it was thrown slightly behind the intended target.
Now, Willis and company will move on to New Orleans and preparing for the Baltimore Ravens.
For the 49ers linebacker, planning for the game should be easy considering he won’t be personally dealing with ticket requests. That’ll be left to his guardian, Chris Finley, Willis’ high school basketball coach.
As for those long lost friends looking for invite to the Louisiana Superdome, Willis had a simple message.
“It’s special for those who want to buy tickets and come and watch me play,” he teased.
Willis hasn’t had much contact with ticket-seeking friends, but he did discuss his ongoing conversations with Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who is expected to retire following the Super Bowl.
The two defensive difference-makers have built a strong bond ever since Willis came into the league in 2007. Willis even refers to Lewis as, “Mufasa,” while Lewis calls Willis, “Young Lion.”
Personal relationships aside, Willis is honored to compete against a player he’s long admired.
“That’s a blessing, it really is, to play against a guy I’ve been a big fan of since I knew what NFL football was,” the 49ers defensive co-captains said. “It’s going to be a pleasure.”
When asked which player is a better linebacker, the humble, hard-working 49ers defender gave respect to his elder friend.
“I give respect where it’s due,” Willis said. “Ray Lewis a guy who has done this for a long time, you can’t take anything away from what he’s done. I’m a guy that’s still trying. I’m a guy that’s still fighting every day. I’m a guy that’s still fighting, still trying to get there.
“He’s a guy who’s been there and done that, so I’d give it to him. Right now, I’m hungry. I’m still trying to get there.”