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Willis, 28, is wrapping up his sixth NFL season after making 120 tackles with two interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles.

“That’s a young lion, man, that I talk to a lot,” said retiring Ravens star Ray Lewis, whose No. 52 is worn by Willis. “Since he has come into this league, I’ve always been (talking to him) _ since we met each other at the Pro Bowl and I knew his story and why he wears 52 and all that. It’s a special story to become close with him like that. I always try to throw the smallest tidbits out to help his career out, to help him (know) how to get better, `You should do this, you should do that.’”

Bowman and Willis were All-Pro picks together in each of the past two seasons. Aldon Smith joined them on this year’s team.

And they have plans to do a lot more for the two-time reigning NFC West champion Niners (13-4-1).

Brooks is signed through 2017 and Smith through `15.

“Not just football, they’re all great guys. I enjoy being around all of them,” Bowman said. “We all can run. We all can do a lot of great things. Some teams only have one guy that can do certain things. I think that’s what makes us unique. We have a chance to do something special, and we’re going to prepare as if our lives depend on it for this game.”

Last February, Brooks signed a six-year, $44.5 million contract extension with $17.5 million guaranteed. He has more than delivered on the new deal this season, his second as a full-time starter. Brooks had 46 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception he returned 50 yards for a touchdown in a Nov. 25 win at New Orleans _ so he should be plenty comfortable in the Superdome.

In fact, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio recently reminded Harbaugh just how important Brooks is to this group of linebackers.

“Vic Fangio made the comment the other day that smartest thing we did as an organization was pay Ahmad Brooks and keep him as a 49er,” Harbaugh said. “And we would all concur with that. He’s done it with very little fanfare, in terms of how he talks about himself. But, he’s been a tireless worker. Go back to the first days of the offseason program, don’t know if he ever missed a day.”

Fangio believes this bunch can still play better _ and he hopes that performance comes Sunday at the Superdome.

“I think it’d be pretty hard if we compare it to the other 3-4 teams in the league to find a better unit,” he said.

Yet Fangio remains cautious in his praise. He has coached some mighty talented linebackers in his day, including the New Orleans group considered among the best ever _ Sam Mills and Vaughn Johnson on the inside, Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling outside.

And Fangio is not ready to rank the current 49ers unit that hasn’t been together that long.

“I’ve ducked answering that question yet. These guys have been together two years, and only one year as a full-time starting unit because Aldon didn’t start last year,” Fangio said. “But I do think, eventually, if they stay humble and hungry, I will have a positive answer to that question in due time. … The sky’s the limit with our guys.”

Outspoken safety Donte Whitner has no problem stating it:

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