NEW ORLEANS - The 49ers are here for Super Bowl XLVII - where they are favored over the Baltimore Ravens - because of the Eagles, Patrick Willis said Sunday.
Willis didn't use those exact words. But when a reporter asked San Francisco's Pro Bowl linebacker to pinpoint the moment he knew he was no longer playing for a team that suffered eight straight non-winning seasons from 2003 through 2010, Willis chose the 49ers' 24-23 victory over the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on Oct. 2, 2011.
Maybe you remember that day. The Birds held a 20-3 lead at halftime, led 23-3 in the third quarter. Would have been more if Ronnie Brown hadn't accidentally shoveled the ball to the 49ers while trying an ill-conceived option pass after being stopped at the goal line.
"There's no question in my mind that probably the turning point for me, in understanding what we have, is that anybody can pat you on the back and cut up with you when things are going good. It's when you go through those hard times and you're in the heat of battle, things aren't going so well, that you really find out a man's character," Willis said.
"Our first year together [under coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff], we were playing against the Eagles, and the Eagles jumped out on us big-time. I've been a part of a locker room, whether it's players or coaches, where there's guys pointing their fingers at one another, guys mad and saying this and that. But for some reason, in that locker room, the coaches came in, the players came in, and we were all just like, 'Don't worry about it. We got ourselves into this, we gotta get ourselves out of it.'
"Coach Harbaugh was like, 'They said it wasn't going to be easy, but we don't like easy.' The defensive coordinator, coach Vic [Fangio] came in, he had every reason to go crazy on us [instead he said], 'Guys, calm down, settle down, let's go play.' I just remember sitting back and watching that and going 'Wow.' Whether we would have lost that game or won that game, to have that, to me was amazing.
"Fortunately, we were able to go out and win that game, which put into perspective what kind of leadership we have with our head coach and the other coaches . . . We calmed down, but honestly, the biggest thing was having our coaches believe in us the way they did."
That game dropped the "dream team" Eagles to 1-3 and boosted the 49ers to 3-1, en route to 13-3. They ultimately lost the NFC title game to the Giants, but this season they won that game, 28-24, over the Falcons, after trailing 17-0 in the first half. it might not be stretching too far to suggest San Francisco got the confidence to mount such a rally in a tough road environment from having done it in Philadelphia, when Harbaugh was still trying to mold his team's identity.
Afterward, Harbaugh called the win "a great character-builder for a young team."
Harbaugh, 24-7-1 in two seasons, illustrates how quickly things can turn around if you hire the right coach - which might be comforting to Eagles fans - but the problem there is that the 49ers, with five Super Bowl titles to their credit, watched their franchise stumble helplessly through the regimes of Dennis Erickson (9-23), Mike Nolan (18-37) and Mike Singletary (18-22) before they hit upon Harbaugh, and stockpiled enough players from drafting pretty high year after year.
"I feel like there's a lot of people who have a lot of fingerprints on this team's success," Harbaugh said Sunday.
On Twitter: @LesBowen