SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Aldon Smith appreciates these playoffs a little more.
A quarter of the season spent away from football's daily rigors, and the teammates and coaches he considers family, to deal with a serious personal matter will do that.
"Any time you take time off away from it, it makes you miss it," Smith said this week. "And it means that much more to you."
Smith took a five-game leave of absence from the 49ers to undergo treatment for substance abuse earlier this season. He is encouraged by the strides he has made to better himself off the football field that put life — and his work — in perspective.
Now, Smith's top goal is to return to the dominant defender he used to be only a year ago, and will look to chase down Aaron Rodgers in the wild-card playoffs for San Francisco (12-4) at Green Bay on Sunday, when he will be matched up against rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari.
"We're winning, we're in the playoffs, things are going good," Smith said. "What else could I ask for right now?"
Smith emerged as one of the NFL's most-feared pass rushers in 2012. He had a franchise-record 19.5 sacks a year ago, but failed to record a sack in his final six games including the team's postseason Super Bowl run.
Just getting the chance to be back in the playoffs is something Smith cherishes right now, along with all the support he has received in the locker room that helped immensely with his comeback.
Smith said he hasn't had any alcohol since before his Sept. 20 DUI arrest, and he isn't craving it. When he rejoined the team Nov. 5, he insisted he was on the path to lifelong sobriety and he hasn't changed that stance as he continues to receive outside help in that process.
"It's been a while, since before the incident," Smith said of drinking, speaking in a candid interview with The Associated Press. "It definitely is (in the past). I'm just focused on moving forward, getting to where I want to get and accomplishing the things I want to accomplish. Every time I'm on the practice field, I'm doing something to just get better. I'm continuing to work toward the goal. I'm excited and I've got to keep doing it."
The 24-year-old Smith sought treatment at an out-of-state inpatient rehab facility this fall.
He spent a low-key New Year's Eve watching his girlfriend host a show on MTV, and didn't feel the urge to party.
"New Year's is just another day. I enjoy it like anybody else should enjoy it," he said. "It's another day to be thankful for."
Smith played in a 27-7 home loss to the Colts on Sept. 22 two days after he was arrested and jailed on suspicion of DUI and marijuana possession. After the game, he publicly apologized for his behavior and later announced he would leave for treatment.
While the Niners went on a five-game winning streak without him, Smith's menacing presence was sorely missed.
"Aldon's always had a good attitude, but even more so since he's been back. It's been amazing just looking at him from a distance and kind of checking out his body language," linebacker Patrick Willis said. "He's really in good spirits. I'm just happy to see him playing football again. We're happy to have him on our team."
His three fellow linebackers, Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks each made the Pro Bowl.
"Without a doubt we know Aldon would be there if he didn't have his setback," Bowman said. "Him taking the leave from the team made him realize the opportunity he has and that he didn't just let down himself, he let down the team and his family. That's all you can ask for a guy to realize his mistakes and just do better. I can see a difference in him now, just the man he is today and how he's trying to carry himself. He's become a better person."
Smith finished with 8 1/2 sacks and 34 tackles in 11 games with eight starts. He was initially worked back in slowly, but demonstrated he had stayed in shape while away.
He still had some catching up to do.
"Honestly, it was good to get away for a little while to collect my thoughts and make me appreciate the game that much more. I'm back now and I'm good," Smith said. "It's the NFL. Any time you take a break from it, you'll miss a little bit of something that you had."
49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio considers Smith to be at midseason level given the long layoff.
"He's played very well down the stretch here," Fangio said. "He drew a lot of attention last week in their pass-protection plan because they saw the way he was playing. I feel good about where he is."
Everybody is cheering for Smith's long-term health and well-being. And, to his credit, teammates aren't worrying about him as he continues to show encouraging signs.
"He's doing everything he needs to do," defensive lineman Justin Smith said. "He wasn't given anything. He's earned his way back to where he's at. He's done everything that's been asked of him and then some."
Smith plans to keep proving himself — in meetings, at practice and on game day.
"A lot of times, you go through adversity and it's easy to just give up and kind of write yourself off. But he didn't do that," Willis said. "We didn't give up on him and he didn't give up on us. And he didn't give up on himself, most of all. That's what's most important. We have his back as his teammates, as his brothers, and we're just trying to win a championship."
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