The San Francisco 49ers are a storied franchise, owners of five Super Bowl titles -- a team once constructed on the innovative West Coast offense designed by offensive guru Bill Walsh. Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jerry Rice made the franchise famous for its fast-striking, super scoring ability, which shattered league records across the board. But times have changed, and the team hasn't captured a title since 1994.
The 2010s represent a new era for the 49ers: Alex Smith isn't Joe Montana, and Michael Crabtree isn't Jerry Rice. But with a dominant defense and a gruesome ball-controlling offense, the Lombardi Trophy is once again coming seemingly within reach.
At the core of the defense is four-time All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, who has helped transform the team from the middle of the NFC pack to league stalwart. Still just 27 years old, Willis feels the vital component to his team's stout defensive attack is togetherness.
"We have one heartbeat," he told The Huffington Post. "No person is bigger than the other. If we play together, we believe good things will happen."
Willis and the 49ers are currently perched atop the NFC West with a 6-2 record, having yielded a meager 271 yards per game to opposing offenses, for second-best in the NFL. Both their rushing and passing defense rank inside the top five, and no team has given up fewer points per game (13). All in all, few teams can boast such elite units at every level of a starting defense. Linebackers Aldon Smith -- last year's Rookie of the Year -- and NaVorro Bowman, named an All-Pro in 2011, are sensational, as are the defensive line and secondary.
Starting cornerback Tarell Brown is another of San Francisco's rising stars. Like Willis, he echoed the sentiment that the defense's success was pinned to its "one heartbeat."
"We all hold each other accountable," he told HuffPost. "We all carry out our business and take a little bit from each other."
That accountability, Brown believes, stems from a coaching staff that demands nothing less.
"The mindset and attitude we have every day," he says, "trickles down from them. [Head coach] Jim Harbaugh is a great people person who knows what guys need on a day-to-day basis."
While judging a team's potential at the midway point of any pro football season may be a bit premature, the 49ers could be poised once again to land a first-round playoff bye and, with it, home field advantage. (They only have two remaining games against opponents with winning records.) Last season, all that a playoff berth got them was a disappointing loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. As the parity-leveled NFL has taught us, no favorite is ever safe from an upset in this league.