There is a much different feeling and outlook for the San Francisco 49ers defense this December than a year ago.
The unit is again ranked near the top of the NFL in several major defensive categories, but instead of limping toward the end of the season, San Francisco is surging to the finish.
"Healthy plus hungry," safety Donte Whitner said. "Hopefully it equals Super Bowl."
The Niners are as healthy as they have been this season, and there is little question the veteran, star-laden unit is hungry. San Francisco has been dominant on the defensive side of the ball during a four-game winning streak.
The 49ers limited Tampa Bay last week to 183 total yards, the fewest the NFL's third-ranked defense has allowed this season. It was a performance typical of their recent play as the 49ers harassed Mike Glennon, who was sacked four times, and forced two turnovers.
The 49ers will try to continue that momentum Monday against Atlanta. San Francisco would clinch a playoff berth for the third consecutive season with a win in the final game played at Candlestick Park or with an Arizona loss to Seattle on Sunday.
"We're playing like we've always played," said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, whose unit finished last season ranked third in the NFL. "We do have some new guys that have filtered in there, but a lot of the same guys are playing.
"They're playing confident and fast like you would expect being in the same system basically for three years."
Though the rankings are similar, San Francisco's defense was in a much worse place last year. The 49ers lost All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith to a torn triceps in Week 15, and he wasn't the same dominant player when he returned for the team's playoff opener four weeks later.
Beginning with Smith's injury, the 49ers allowed an average of 29.6 points over their final six games, including the playoffs, a stretch that ended with San Francisco's 34-31 loss to Baltimore in the Super Bowl.
Browns WR Bess done for season
Davone Bess had a disappointing and shortened first season with the Browns.
The wide receiver was placed on the reserve/non-football illness list Saturday, ending his season with two games left and after he missed practice time this week for "personal reasons." The team gave no further details for Bess' absence.