SANTA CLARA — The 49ers clinched a playoff berth with their impressive victory over the New England Patriots. In the process, they laid claim to being the team to beat in the quest for the Super Bowl.
The Sunday night matchup amounted to a Super Bowl preview in some circles. Jim Harbaugh conceded that the game carried added significance.
"It was obvious both teams desperately wanted to win the game," the 49ers coach said Monday. "It felt like both teams wanted to prove they were the better team."
As evidence, Harbaugh pointed out the hard hitting that started from the outset and lasted until the 49ers prevailed 41-34.
"Both teams really wanted it, to show that they were the better team," Harbaugh said. "It was a great game. It was an exciting game. Very competitive."
The 49ers gained a little breathing room in the battle for the NFC West title, with the Seattle Seahawks standing 1? games behind with two to play.
There also is the matter of securing one of the top two seeds in the NFC playoffs — and the first-round bye and home-field advantage that comes with that distinction. For now, the 49ers sit as the No.2 seed.
To that end, Harbaugh and his staff spent a chunk of their time on the plane ride back to the Bay Area breaking down tape and preparing for this Sunday night's game against the Seahawks.
What Harbaugh sees when watching tape is a team that has the resolve to withstand a 28-point flurry by the Patriots and persevere in the most trying circumstances.
"The pressure to perform is great in this league, at this level," Harbaugh said. "I credit that to we have excellent players who are kind of in the prime of their career. They're at the experienced height, but they're young, and they've been in those situations. They're young, experienced and kind of right in their prime."
Harbaugh said he expects another intense game against the Seahawks. He isn't sure whether he will have standout defensive lineman Justin Smith at his disposal.
Smith suffered an elbow injury against the Patriots and was unable to finish the game. He underwent an MRI exam Monday. Harbaugh said they won't determine Smith's status until seeing how the elbow responds over the next couple of days.
Smith has started 185 consecutive regular-season games, the third-longest streak among active players.
Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick and center Jonathan Goodwin had difficulty with the center-quarterback exchange on several occasions Sunday.
Harbaugh said the issue will be addressed this week and that it's not all on Kaepernick.
"There are two people involved there, the center and the quarterback," Harbaugh said. "You look at how each is taking that snap, delivering the snap, and get it fixed."
AKERS STILL KICKING
Harbaugh said David Akers will remain as place-kicker despite Akers' inconsistent play.
"Specialists, sometimes they only get four or five opportunities a game; you've got to make the play," Harbaugh said. "You've got to see him do it, got to see him make those plays."
Akers missed a 39-yard field-goal attempt against the Patriots. He also converted two field goals and all five of his extra-point attempts. He is 25 for 35 this season (71.4 percent) on field goals. Last season he made 44 of 52 (84.6 percent) during a Pro Bowl season.