SANTA CLARA, CALIF., JAN. 11 -- Ronnie Lott was wearing an all-Madden team sweatshirt, a gift from CBS-TV analyst John Madden for making his all-star team, mostly consisting of players that go "Boom!"

That sound describes the San Francisco safety perfectly, since Lott is one of the hardest hitters to play the game.

Lott also is usually one of the most talkative and friendly players in the league, but one day before the 49ers were to meet the Washington Redskins on Saturday in an NFC semifinal game, he was quiet. And focused. Because defense is the main reason the 49ers are in position to win an unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl, and Lott knows the defense's excellent play will have to continue if his team is to beat the Redskins.

"I'm through talking. It's time to play, not time to talk," he said. "I think we all reach that point where we're through talking and we just want to play."

Quarterback Joe Montana was named the league MVP, but maybe he should consider giving a piece of the trophy to his defense, which has limited scoring while the 49ers' offense has struggled somewhat.

Wide receiver Jerry Rice had the fourth 100-catch season in NFL history and makes big bucks doing Nike commercials. So maybe he should give a pair of sneakers to each defender, since players such as outside linebacker Charles Haley (NFC-high 16 sacks) continually gave Rice the opportunity to make those catches. Haley also had 58 tackles and forced three fumbles, and blocked a field goal against the Redskins in Week 2.

The point is that defense has been the most consistent part of the 49ers this season, not the more star-studded and well-known offense.

"We get more credit for not getting credit," said inside linebacker Michael Walter. "That's the big story. I don't know if it's the case. When you have an offense like ours, the dynamic players like Joe, Jerry, and Roger {Craig}, you don't get the recognition."

The defense, ranked third in the NFL, allowed 14.9 points a game. That's down nearly one point from last season and nearly four from 1988. The current edition gave up 267 yards a game, only 78 rushing.

"You have to say that the playoffs will be what the season has been," inside linebacker Matt Millen said. "This year we've been a defensive team and I expect that to continue. I would expect {the defense} to carry the team through the playoffs."

And it has managed to play well without Lott, the inspirational leader, for an extended period of time. He will play against the Redskins after a one-month rehabilitation for sprained knees.

The 49ers may have built their best front seven of their Super Bowl era. Ends Pierce Holt and Kevin Fagan combined for 15 sacks, 8 passes deflected and 114 tackles. Millen had 62 tackles and an interception.

Safety Dave Waymer, a Plan B pickup from the Saints, backed up Lott and Chet Brooks, and played in the nickel defense at cornerback and weak outside linebacker. A devoted game-film watcher who begins at 6 a.m., he led the team with six interceptions.

"I've played a lot of Super Bowls on the side of my mother's house, like all kids do," Waymer said. "I've played in tons of those, but not the real thing."

Whether he takes part in the genuine article will depend on the rest of the 49ers' defense.

49ers Notes: The team activated wide receiver Mike Sherrard off injured reserve. He broke his right leg against Cleveland on Oct. 28. Safety Greg Cox was put on injured reserve.