All the talk earlier this season about starting veteran ILB Takeo Spikes possibly losing significant playing time at the expense of third-round rookie NaVorro Bowman actually might have served a useful purpose. "I think he really took that as a challenge," one team insider said of Spikes, who most daily observers believe has been the Niners' best overall linebacker so far this season — including Pro Bowl ILB Patrick Willis, whose numbers are significantly down from his previous three seasons. There were many who thought that the 33-year-old Spikes would start to show his age this season. "It's been quite the opposite," the insider said. "He's been surprisingly strong in coverage, as he showed with the interception that sealed the win against Oakland. He has been shedding blocks consistently, and he doesn't miss a tackle. And he's a real leader who is very good dealing with the media."