NEW ORLEANS — Two of the 49ers four losses this season came against divisional foes. Playing in such a rugged division is going to benefit the 49ers in the long run, though, inside linebacker Patrick Willis said Thursday.

"Our division has really stepped up a whole lot," Willis said. "At one time, the NFC West was a steppingstone for other teams to play. They kind of licked their chops every time they played us because they saw us as an automatic win."

Not anymore. The 49ers and Seattle Seahawks earned two of the six NFC Playoffs berths this season, with the Seahawks coming one play away from upsetting the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons.

(Nhat V. Meyer)

Further evidence that the 49ers are well prepared to hold their own against a physical Baltimore Ravens team in the Super Bowl on Sunday came in the 49ers first full-blown practice here.

During that practice, Willis said, the 49ers looked as sharp as they have all season, a sentiment shared by coach Jim Harbaugh.

"Yeah, yesterday probably was on of our best practices," Willis said. "That's one of the things that coach tells us all the time, it's about getting better every day. You never want to stay the game."

The first valuable lesson Willis learned as an NFL player came during his rookie season, when then-coach Mike Singletary taught Willis about how respect is earned.


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To that end, Singletary referred to Willis as "52" and "Mississippi," early on, in reference to Willis' jersey number and where he played his college ball.

In the end, Willis said Singletary's tough-love approach helped mold Willis into the standout player he has been his first six NFL seasons, all of which culminated with Willis being selected to the Pro Bowl.