SANTA CLARA -- NaVorro Bowman is a lock to lead the 49ers in tackles for a third straight season, and he's on pace to compile a career-high total.

Best season of Bowman's career?

"I like to say I've been playing well all my years. If this is the best year, I'll take it," said the fourth-year linebacker.

Not one 49ers defender is among nine candidates listed by an online oddsmaker for NFL Defensive MVP honors.

That's largely because the 49ers' defense isn't a one-man band. It's a symphony of musicians specializing in their specific role, such as Bowman and Patrick Willis at inside linebacker, or Justin Smith at defensive tackle, or so on and so on.

Bowman's exceptional season has been especially noticeable of late.

"He sure has been playing at a very high level," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Consistently great, week in and week out. You could even say the last four or five ballgames, I mean, he's elevated that play.

A first-team All-Pro each of the past two seasons, Bowman long ago became more than Willis' sidekick on the interior.

"He's just been outstanding and deserves to be mentioned in that kind of (MVP) company," Harbaugh added.

The Atlanta Falcons know Bowman does more than tackle. He clinched the 49ers' Super Bowl berth last season by knocking down Matt Ryan's fourth-down pass in the Georgia Dome.

"You want to get better every single year," Bowman said. "The coaches and everyone think I have. I want to keep that going, keep working and see where I end up."

Bowman's best game this season arguably came at a crucial juncture: a Sept. 26 win at St. Louis. He had nine tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a pass defense as the 49ers evened their record at 2-2.

That performance also helped offset the absence of Willis, who missed the first of two games because of a groin injury.

Remarkably, Bowman hasn't missed a game since entering the starting lineup in 2011 -- or actually in the 2010 season finale while Willis sat out with a broken hand.

Is Bowman playing the best football of his career?

"He might be," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "But he's played really well in the three years we've been here.

"He should be playing better now. He's still in the prime of his career, still in the state of his career where he should be improving and playing better. And I think he is."

Bowman is ProFootballFocus.com's third-rated inside linebacker, behind Willis and the Kansas City Chiefs' Derrick Johnson. But Bowman is by far the top-rated inside linebacker when it comes to run defense, with a 9.9 rating; Baltimore's Daryl Smith is second at 4.5.

Neither Bowman nor the rest of the run defense has been flawless. But the 49ers haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher this season, and they are giving up the league's sixth-fewest rushing yards per game (99.4).

"I would be hard pressed to say who the MVP of that group is because you'd be slighting a lot of really good football players," Falcons coach Mike Smith said.

Smith then pondered the candidates, lauding Willis' prestigious résumé, Justin Smith's toughness, Aldon Smith's re-emergence and Ahmad Brooks' strength.

"I'd be remiss if I don't talk about NaVorro Bowman," Smith said. "He's their leading tackler."

He is because he's become more comfortable and knowledgeable in Fangio's system.

"I study the game like no other," Bowman said, "and it's helping me out being a student of the game rather than just letting my athletic ability take over."

What does he have in store for the final scheduled game Monday night at Candlestick Park? Bowman said that because he's very respectful of history, he wants to honor his 49ers predecessors who "put the work in and won those championships."

"This game is for them," Bowman added. "We want to leave on a good note."

For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CamInman.