SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- So you think pro football is all about fury and glory and the applause of 70,000 strong?
That's for Sunday. For playoff teams, it's pretty much high school calculus without a true Christmas break.
"(It's about) Mondays," San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman said Thursday. "We listen to our coaches. Believe it or not, this is school, and we're the students. It's our job to learn, and it's showing on the field."
Bowman and teammate Patrick Willis form perhaps the best 3-4 inside-linebacker pairing in the NFL. Bowman has a team-high 192 tackles this season, Willis 147.
But on the other side is Carolina Panther Luke Kuechly, arguably the best middle linebacker in football. He had 156 tackles in the regular season.
Bowman's job this week is to drill deep into the workings of the Panthers' offense before Sunday's 1 p.m. kickoff at Bank of America Stadium. But he also peeks in on Kuechly's work, the way fellow sculptures size up each other's chiseling.
He likes what he sees.
"His instincts," Bowman said of Kuechly's best attribute. "He sees the ball. That comes with playing a little running back, if he did, when you're young. You can feel where the runner is going. What (the runner) sees before he sees it. That's just instinct."
Who best ferrets out the other's offense could be huge in Sunday's outcome. Their contrasting paths to this game -- the Panthers received a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed, while the 49ers had to win at Green Bay in the wild-card round -- is a give-and-take dynamic.
"We played a football game five days ago. They haven't. We're football-ready, they've been sitting around. I don't know" who that benefits, Bowman said Thursday. "They've had two weeks to look at us so I expect some different looks we haven't seen."
It's been apparent throughout the week that the 49ers are wary of how dynamically Kuechly can affect this game. San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman described Kuechly as a "really fast Tedy Bruschi," comparing him to the New England Patriots' cerebral linebacker-turned-ESPN analyst.
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh was asked Wednesday how to neutralize Kuechly. Harbaugh replied like that's being asked to stare into the sun and not see spots.
"I don't know that neutralize is a possibility," said Harbaugh, who aggressively recruited Kuechly out of high school when he was Stanford's coach. "He is a fantastic football player, and we've definitely got to get him blocked. ... Again, we'll shoot for A-plus-plus, but I don't know if that's realistic in his case, because he's a fantastic, fantastic player."
Part of that is ability. Part of that is preparation. It's the classroom work Bowman referred to, and all three of these backers devote themselves to it.
"With their offense, you have to be ready for anything," Bowman said of the Panthers. "Me and Pat, man, we prepare. So I'm sure we'll be ready."
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