Justin Smith, a veteran of 12 NFL seasons, may not be willing to give his left arm in the quest for professional football’s greatest prize. But he’s willing to put a brace on it.
“It’s a love-hate relationship right now,” San Francisco’s premier defensive end said of the brace holding his partially torn left triceps together, as he and the 49ers head into Sunday’s NFC Championship Game in Atlanta.
“But it’s one of those things and it’s doing its job.”
After doing his job for 185 straight regular-season starts, Smith, 33, was sidelined during the 49ers’ final two games of the 2012 season after injuring his arm during mid-December’s 41-34 win over the New England Patriots.
But in last weekend’s home divisional playoff win — the 49ers’ second in as many years — against the Green Bay Packers, Cowboy played brace and all. And his teammates were grateful.
“It was amazing,” 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis said of Smith’s return. “I’m glad we had that bye week in order to get him that much more healthier. Just to have him out there, he’s a big part of our defense.”
San Francisco had Smith — a healthy Smith — last postseason. The lineman bedeviled opposing quarterbacks Drew Brees and Eli Manning this time last year, sacking them both once apiece.
But where the last postseason got off to an ecstatic start, Smith this year is taking an earnest approach.
“The majority of those guys that are in that locker room were here last year — and felt disappointed,” Smith said.
“We were so excited after winning the Saints game; I didn’t feel the same ... after the Packers game. And we beat a heck of a team in the Packers. I feel like the whole team kinda got a sense of ‘there’s more to this thing than just getting to this game.’”
But while Smith’s presence on the line universally improves the 49ers defense, there are still questions about how his triceps will hold up against the Falcons.
“It’s like anything, if it’s half-torn or whatever, it can tear the rest of the way,” Smith said. “So not really concerned about it. Just gonna go out there, do the best I can and see what happens.”
What happened last week is that the brace held up, and San Francisco won. He’ll wear the brace again in Atlanta.
“Doing anything the second time is better than the first time,” Smith said. “So it should definitely be a lot better and a lot more comfortable.”
On Sunday, Smith will play in a conference title game for the second time. And at game’s end, we’ll know whether if it indeed turned out better.