The Atlanta Falcons were driving for what they hoped would be the winning touchdown. Fourth-and-4 at the San Francisco 10 with little more than a minute left. Quarterback Matt Ryan sent wide receiver Roddy White over the middle. The ball and 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman arrived at roughly the same time. The pass went incomplete, hushing the Georgia Dome crowd. The 49ers won, 28-24, and were off to Super Bowl XLVII.

"Tell NaVorro I'm not sure that wasn't pass interference," a joking Tom Bradley said earlier this week.

So I did.

Bowman grinned at the mention of Bradley, his defensive coordinator at Penn State. But he didn't care much for that pass-interference inference.

"Where does that come from? That wasn't pass interference," Bowman said. "I jammed him at 5 yards. I knocked the ball down. I thought it was a great play."

Bowman should know one when he sees one. He has made a bunch this season. He's a big reason the 49ers will play the Baltimore Ravens Sunday night for the championship. He and fellow inside linebacker Patrick Willis. Nos. 53 and 52. All-Pros this season and in 2011.

"They're the two best linebackers in football," Ravens running back Ray Rice said.

Bowman was a wonderful player at Penn State and did his part to uphold the whole "Linebacker U" thing. But who knew he would be this good in the NFL? From special-teams standout as a rookie in 2010 to All-Pro the past two seasons?


"I can't tell you why he didn't go until the third round [of the NFL draft]," Bradley said. "Why didn't Tom Brady go until the sixth round? Sometimes, there's no explanation. It's not an exact science."

Bradley did his part to hype Bowman. He remembers taking a call from then-49ers coach Mike Singletary before the 2010 draft. Singletary knew Bowman had missed time in the 2009 season because of a shoulder injury, but he wanted more information.

"Anything I need to know to coach him?" Singletary asked Bradley.

"Turn him loose. Just let him go," Bradley responded.

That's what Singletary did. He taught Bowman a lot about playing inside linebacker in the NFL before he was fired late in the 2010 season. Singletary had a little cred with Bowman. He made the Hall of Fame as an inside linebacker with the Chicago Bears.

Jim Harbaugh, who became the 49ers coach in 2011, also has turned Bowman loose. You might have heard something about Harbaugh this week. He'll be coaching against his brother, John, of the Ravens Sunday night.

"I just want to continue getting better and see where I end up at the end of this whole thing," Bowman said. "I want people to say, 'That kid, Bowman, he can run. He can tackle. He can cover. He can do everything.' "

The 49ers believe Bowman already is doing it all. In November, they signed him to five-year contract extension through the 2018 season. His new deal could be worth $45.25 million with $25.5 million guaranteed. He received a $7.5 million signing bonus.

It looks as if it will be awhile before Bowman gets on with his life's work. He graduated from Penn State in 3 1/2 years with a degree in crime, law and justice. He hopes to return home to the Washington, D.C., area one day and make the rough streets there a little better.

That's an admirable goal, but, at the moment, Bowman has only football on his mind. On his body, too. Literally. He has the NFL logo tattooed on his right bicep.

Bowman's immediate challenge is to stop the Ravens offense, especially Rice. No one knows better than Steelers fans what a terrific player Rice is as a runner and pass-catcher. Rice has spent the week talking up Bowman and Willis as run-stoppers but said he likes his matchup against them in the passing game. He also likes the damage tight end Dennis Pitta can do. Pitta has become a dependable target for quarterback Joe Flacco with 10 catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns in the three playoff games.

"He's underestimating us," Bowman said of Rice. "We take a lot of pride in covering quick and fast guys. What makes us dangerous is our confidence is through the roof. Our work ethic is through the roof ...

"We'll have to go out and show [Rice] on Sunday."

Ryan and White will tell you how good Bowman is against the pass.

OK, so maybe they're the wrong pair to ask.

Trust me, Bowman holds his own.

The biggest stage in sports won't frighten Bowman. Bradley talked of Bowman recovering a late fumble by Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor during the 2008 season, enabling Penn State to get its biggest win on its way to the Big Ten Conference championship. Bowman played his best game at Penn State in the Rose Bowl against Southern California after that 2008 season. He had five tackles for 21 yards in losses, a Penn State bowl record. He was the one Penn State player who could match up against USC's superior athletes. Penn State lost, 38-24.

The striking thing about Bowman's performance against USC was that his coach at Suitland (Md.) High School, Nick Lynch, was killed in an automobile accident the day before the game. Lynch was huge in Bowman's life. So was Bowman's father, Hillard, who dropped dead from a blood clot in June 2008.

"That whole year was a tough time in my life," Bowman said. "Everything was going downhill for me. The only thing I had was football ...

"Coming from where I come from, those two really inspired me and had a lot to do with where I'm at. I still need them. I wish they could see me right now, see me shining, see me still working and remaining the person I am. I still have one more thing to do, and that's to win the Super Bowl. It'll be for those two men."

That's powerful motivation.

It has carried Bowman a long way.

The 49ers are loving the ride.