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Richard Sherman is the straw that stirs the top-seeded 49ers' drink

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Stepping to the podium after the San Francisco 49ers' biggest win of the season, cornerback Richard Sherman had ample opportunity to revel in the fact his team had not only won the NFC West and claimed the NFC's No. 1 seed, but had done so against the Seattle Seahawks on their home turf.

That victory had to taste a little sweeter for Sherman given how his time in Seattle ended. But if it did, he wasn't interested in talking about it.

Sherman did want to talk about rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who had just made the game-saving tackle. Sherman's answer went on for about a minute, praising Greenlaw for his preparation and ability to step up in such a big moment. Sherman has never been shy about expressing his views and opinions, but when it comes to praising, motivating and hyping up his teammates, he never holds back.

It's why, as the 49ers prepare for their first playoff game in 1,832 days and the first for many of his young teammates, Sherman is the ideal locker-room leader.

"His leadership qualities are unmatched in my opinion," defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. "No matter the situation, whether he's at his ultimate high, whether he gets angry, whatever it is, he's able to bring himself to a level where he's always trying to teach, trying to get better, working with players, working with coaches, just all of us all together. He's really taken that step from just being the wisest guy in the room but helping these guys learn and understand the pro game and how to be a pro and how to practice and approach that.

"You can't put a price on what he's meant to this defense."

Sherman's value to the 49ers on the field was already undeniable. Fully recovered from a torn Achilles, Sherman has returned to All-Pro form. He finished the regular season with 61 tackles, three interceptions, six passes defended and a touchdown. Sherman was rarely tested in coverage and opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 46.8 when targeting him -- the third-best mark in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

"He's playing great," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "There's nobody that understands the game at his position better than he does. He's savvy, he's smart, he's tough, he's a playmaker. He's doing everything just like he's capable. I don't see any drop off in his game at all."

Entering the playoffs, the Niners' active roster has 13 players who have appeared in a postseason game, with five (Sherman, tackle Joe Staley, running back Tevin Coleman, kicker Robbie Gould and receiver Emmanuel Sanders) playing prominent roles on teams that have been there multiple times. None have played more than Sherman's 12 playoff games or 729 postseason snaps.

All of that is meaningful as the Niners head into the postseason crucible. So, too, is the job Sherman does making sure his teammates don't lack for motivation and encouragement.

When the 49ers dismantled the Cleveland Browns 31-3 on Oct. 7 to improve to 4-0, Sherman did a little of everything.

He did it on the field: intercepting quarterback Baker Mayfield and making four tackles after Sherman said Mayfield had disrespected him by not shaking his hand during the pregame coin toss. Although it turned out Mayfield did shake hands, prompting a Sherman apology, the larger effect was it served as fuel to Sherman's personal fire.

Lost in the midst of that incident was Sherman's postgame news conference, during which he struck the ideal balance between praising his teammates and letting them know that there were still plenty of skeptics to prove wrong.

Asked about rookie defensive end Nick Bosa, Sherman filibustered for 375 words, praising Bosa, then going out of his way to call out strong performances by seven other Niners. It's a practice Sherman started early in his career in Seattle, often starting media sessions by rattling off linebacker Bobby Wagner and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane's statistics.

"I've always been that kind of guy, that kind of teammate that talked his guys up," Sherman said. "I think that's important because guys deserve it and guys can't talk about themselves. Everybody doesn't get the platform to speak. So if you've got the platform, you should use it to give the guys the attention they deserve."

Moments later, Sherman shifted right back into throwing kerosene on the fire, giving a 372-word answer in which he implored "idiots to sound like idiots" and warned skeptical observers not to flip flop as the Niners continued to prove themselves as legitimate contenders.

"It definitely fans the flames," Sherman said. "And once again, it's always about that. It's always about finding another chip on your shoulder, finding some other motivation, some slights, some gas for your fire to keep it going."

The things Sherman has brought behind the scenes have as much impact, if not more, than what happens when cameras and tape recorders are rolling. Early in his career, Sherman said he learned the importance of staying in the moment and focusing on the process rather than results.

Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon points to Sherman pushing consistency as the only way to put together a long, successful career. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said Sherman has an innate ability to get to know his teammates, understand what they need -- whether it's criticism or praise -- and what is required to get the most out of them.

Defensive lineman Ronald Blair III provides a good example. He recalled a play in 2018 in which he came off the ball and blew it up and Sherman told him he was going to play off of him, which caught Blair off guard.

"Just hearing that from a guy who is probably a future Hall of Famer, that's just major respect to let me know he believes in me and he wants me to let loose and do my thing," Blair said.

When it's time to press other buttons, Sherman doesn't hesitate. According to Blair, Sherman will occasionally approach the defensive line in practice and say things like 'You think you'll beat so and so with that move?' to rile them up.

"He will just get your wheels turning and kind of get you fired up," Blair said. "He does little small things that might not be that big, but they will motivate you."