In Willis' first three seasons as a pro, this was about the time the Niners would accept their fate. Tempers would flare, fingers would be pointed. But with Jim Harbaugh and his staff in charge, the attitude in the locker room was different. All was not lost.
"Coach Harbaugh was like, 'You know what? They said it was going to be easy, but we don't like it easy,' " Willis recalled during the Niners' first media availability for Super Bowl week on Sunday night. "'We got ourselves down, we gotta fight out of it.'
"I remember sitting back and watching it and going, 'Wow.' Whether we would have lost that game or won that game, just to have that, was amazing."
Willis joined the 49ers as a first-round pick in 2007, instantly making a name for himself as a very good linebacker on some not-so-good teams. They went 26-38 in Willis' first four seasons before Harbaugh came to town and changed the culture in an instant.
"There were times in my first four years there was no question in my mind, this is the year, we're going to make these playoffs, we're going to make a run," Willis said. "I always thought if we could just get in these playoffs we have a team that could make a run, we just couldn't get over that hump."
Harbaugh said on Sunday night that Willis is part of the "fabric" and "character" of the 49ers' defense. He calls the linebacker a humble, "get-the-job-done" guy.
Willis won't get near the same attention as the other No. 52 in town this week, but he'll likely savor this hard-earned moment just the same.
Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter @DanHanzus.