Akers must fight for job after recent struggles
As Jim Harbaugh sent the 49ers into a mandatory three-day break to ''rest their minds, rest their bodies,'' San Francisco's coach and his staff busily began playoff preparations for the NFC divisional round in less than two weeks.
That is, after he took a moment to congratulate his men for another special season. One that is hardly finished in everybody's mind.
The two-time reigning NFC West champions (11-4-1) will now spend much of their energy and efforts studying the Washington Redskins – the one team among the Niners' three possible opponents that they have yet to face this season. Green Bay and Seattle are the other two who could visit Candlestick Park for the Jan. 12 prime-time matchup.
Rarely one to look ahead by even a day, Harbaugh referenced the road he expects the team to take before season's end: reaching the Super Bowl after coming so close last season. San Francisco lost 20-17 in overtime of the NFC title game to the eventual champion New York Giants.
''To be back-to-back division champs, worthy champions of arguably the best division in football again this year, I think is quite an accomplishment,'' Harbaugh said Monday. ''Now it's a new focus, a three-game focus, to get our ultimate goal.''
There's another important job, too. Harbaugh must figure out who will be kicking field goals the rest of the way. David Akers struggled yet again Sunday, missing wide left from 44 and 40 yards before connecting on a 43-yarder and 26-yarder in a 27-13 win against Arizona. Harbaugh said it is likely the team will bring in a few kickers for ''some tryouts, have some competition.''
The 49ers then signed veteran Billy Cundiff on Tuesday, a kicker the team had brought in for a tryout earlier this season when Akers’ struggles began.
Akers, who made 44 of 52 attempts in his sensational 2011 season, is just 29 for 42 this year. He is only 7 for 13 from 40-49 yards.
The 38-year-old Akers signed a three-year contract as arguably the 49ers' biggest offseason acquisition ahead of the 2011 season aside from the hiring of Harbaugh. And he delivered at nearly every opportunity – until recently.
He had a 21-yard attempt blocked by Red Bryant in a 42-13 loss at Seattle on Dec. 23, and Richard Sherman returned it 90 yards for a touchdown.
Such a dramatic decline for the veteran who surprised himself when he hit a 63-yarder in a season-opening win at Green Bay after the ball bounced off the crossbar. Akers called it ''about like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.''
A six-time Pro-Bowler in his 15th NFL season out of Louisville, Akers scored 166 points last season – far surpassing the 49ers' previous best of 138 accomplished by Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice in 1987.
''Kickers go through, at times, slumps. You see a guy go through it and sometimes he'll come out of it quickly and sometimes it lingers a little bit,'' Harbaugh said. ''Have I been surprised that he hasn't made those kicks? You have to understand, that's the job of the kicker, put it through the uprights.''
Cundiff, signed to a one-year contract, has played in 106 games, connecting on 139 of 184 field-goal attempts and 217 PATs, over the course of his NFL career. He was originally signed by the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 2002 and has also played for the New Orleans Saints, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens and most recently the Washington Redskins. Cundiff appeared in 5 games during the 2012 season with the Redskins, converting 7 of 12 field goal attempts, before being released on October 9.
To make room on the roster for Cundiff, the 49ers waived linebacker Eric Bakhtiari.
Also of added importance with securing the NFC's No. 2 seed and an extra week before opening the playoffs is the chance to get Pro Bowl defensive tackle Justin Smith back into the mix after he partially tore his left triceps muscle in a 41-34 win at New England on Dec. 16.
Smith's 185-game streak without missing a start ended at Seattle, and Arizona pounded that right side of the line at every opportunity with Smith missing.
''My thoughts are that you watch the strength and how that comes back, and if he can play, do his job, defend himself and be effective,'' Harbaugh said. ''He has made progress each week, significant progress. Hopeful, would be my thought.''
Harbaugh indicated the team would not only rely on Smith's word on whether he feels ready, but also the doctors.
''Nobody knows his body like a player himself,'' Harbaugh said. ''I'm hopeful.''
Whether or not Smith is available, the 49ers will need more consistency from their kicker going forward.
''We want to make the right decision. David's certainly in it,'' Harbaugh said. ''He's done a lot of great things for us. He's made a lot of great kicks, big kicks. He knows it, we know it. Those kicks in the games, you've got to make those kicks. There will always be a level of competition around at any position to find who gives you the best chance to win the next game. Knowing how competitive Dave is, I don't think he'll have a problem with that.''
San Francisco captured consecutive division crowns for the first time since winning four straight West titles from 1992-95. A first-round bye again was an added bonus after Minnesota beat the Packers.
''The bye is great,'' backup quarterback Alex Smith said. ''It gives us a chance to get that much more healthy.''
Harbaugh became the eighth coach in NFL history to win division titles in each of his first two seasons and third to do so after taking over a team with a losing record.
Yet Harbaugh offered a warning of sorts to his players as 2013 approached not to get too excited about what they've done so far.
''The celebration will be after the Super Bowl, not New Year's Eve,'' the coach said. ''I hope guys are smart, I hope they're tame tonight. I tried to ask that, encourage it, almost insist it. You can't make people do things, but if the players are listening, be tame, be tame. Let's rest. I think we need it.''
And after a turbulent final month of the season, the 49ers got it.
NOTES: RB Kendall Hunter said he underwent surgery on his injured left Achilles and is making progress in his recovery. While still sporting a walking boot, he said: ''I'm getting better. I'll be walking next week. I wish I could be out there.'' ... Aside from the break early in the week, San Francisco players also will have Saturday and Sunday off. ... Harbaugh said CB Tarell Brown played Sunday while fighting a ''fever, the sickness, the flu, the whole works.'' ... The Niners waived RB Brandon Jacobs, who was suspended Dec. 10 for the final three regular-season games.