The San Francisco 49ers headed into Week 18 in a position every team in the NFL wishes they had: owning the No. 1 seed in their conference with the luxury of resting key players for the playoffs.
San Fran is taking full advantage of that this week, especially with star running back Christian McCaffrey dealing with a calf strain.
However, this moment of rest and recovery is only temporary. The 49ers know they are among the favorites to win the Super Bowl this year, something they've come close to but couldn't achieve in the past few seasons.
Niners legend Patrick Willis, who made seven Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams in his eight seasons with San Fran, has been in this position before.
The 49ers made a run from 2011 to 2013 under then-head coach Jim Harbaugh. They appeared in three straight conference championships, losing two of them with a Super Bowl in between that resulted in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Willis spoke to Fox News Digital about his hopes for the 49ers to win the Super Bowl for the first time since 1994, and he couldn't help but relive what could've been when he was playing.
However, failure is still a teacher, and Willis knows what he would like to tell this Niners squad before they play in the divisional round.
"The only thing that’s guaranteed is what you have right now and what you do with right now," Willis said while discussing how Nirvana Super's wellness beverages have helped his fitness goals post-career. "Only thing I can say to them is: Don’t let it pass you by. The last few years, they’ve been knocking right at the door, and I said it before the season started and I’ll say it again: I feel like this is the year they have to get it done. You don’t put all those pieces together and have all those pieces to just come up short, and we did. That’s the unfortunate thing."
"Don’t let it pass you by, you all. Go get it done, Niners."
Kyle Shanahan's group has been to back-to-back conference championship games, but hasn't been able to make the final game of the NFL season. He did, however, in 2019, but Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs spoiled the chance to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy at the end of it.
The 49ers certainly have the group to make it to Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas, but the pressure is certainly on to do so. One win gets them to the NFC Championship (they'll get a first-round bye), two gets them the chance to play for the title, and the third and final win is what they hope to achieve.
But as Willis noted, the championship window can only stay open for so long. It's a luxury that "Mr. Irrelevant" quarterback Brock Purdy has become the team's franchise quarterback at such a low price point.
That's one of the reasons why the team can afford guys like McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Trent Williams and many other key cogs that have high cap numbers. GM John Lynch knows that means nothing if no hardware graces the team's facility in the end.
The pressure may be high, but Willis isn't worried about the 49ers answering the bell. He sees a lot of similarities with this group compared to his teams a decade ago.
"They have similarities on both sides of the ball and special teams," he explained. "In all three phases, they can get it done, and that’s how I felt with the offensive side of the ball when I’d watch guys at practice. I would always study the offense because I wanted to know what was going on on the offensive side and what they’re working on. I would be like, ‘Man, which one would I cover on this [play]? Uh, uh, uh.’ That’s what it feels like going against the Niners [today]."
"On defense, there’s no debate who two of the best tandem linebackers are in the NFL in Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner. Those guys have been playing phenomenal. The D-Line has been playing phenomenal. I feel like they have a few things they can tighten up a little bit, but it’s no different than having Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa or whoever – or some of the new guys – to get up there and be home-run hitters."
There's talent galore in San Fran, but the same can be said about other NFC teams, let alone who makes it out of the AFC in the playoffs. Willis noted the Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys and reigning NFC-champion Philadelphia Eagles as teams that could give the Niners fits.
In the end, though, this group has proven to be a powerhouse in the conference, one that has earned the right to sit and wait for their opponent to begin the postseason.
What they do from there is the question, but it's one Willis says must be answered with each game.
"They only got two games to get to the championship and a third game to win it," he said. "So, I feel like they have the squad, and I’ve been saying it all along, I just wanted them to hit that stride and come in hot. I think them getting the bye week, getting guys fresh, the veteran leadership, I think they’re going to come in and get it done."
"At the end of the day, they got to go out there and play. And it’s any given day in the playoffs."