49ers hope to lock up first-round bye Monday

By Janie Mccauley

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 26 2011 4:05 p.m. MST

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, left, hands off to Frank Gore Seattle Seahawks in the first half of an NFL football game Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011.

John Froschauer, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Frank Gore planned to openly cheer for the Falcons on Monday night against New Orleans. Coach Jim Harbaugh and the rest of the San Francisco 49ers? You bet they had the same idea.

"If they don't win, if New Orleans don't lose, we'll go down to St. Louis and try to get a win and lock up that second seed and get that bye week," Gore said Monday. "As a team, that will help us, especially playing at home. Our first (playoff) game, that's big for us. I'm excited."

A loss by the Saints would wrap up the NFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye for Gore and the NFC West champion Niners (12-3), and take the pressure off Sunday's season finale at St. Louis. Resurgent San Francisco has put itself in about the best possible position heading into the franchise's first playoff appearance in nine years.

"Hoping for the best, expecting the worst," Harbaugh said of getting help from Atlanta. "Regardless, preparing to beat the Rams."

The 49ers pulled off an impressive 19-17 victory at Seattle on Saturday behind David Akers' four field goals, which put him at 42 for the year to set the NFL's single-season record.

Punter Andy Lee had his punt blocked midway through the fourth quarter in a rare special teams mistake that very well could have been a turning point and momentum shift for the Seahawks. It was Lee's first blocked punt since 2008 and third in an eight-year career that could include a third Pro Bowl selection Tuesday.

"Probably the biggest factor is they didn't flinch," Harbaugh said. "Even after the blocked punt the demeanor on the sideline was outstanding — offense, defense, special teams, nobody was hanging their daubers."

Now, the 49ers will closely monitor what happens to the Saints. San Francisco holds the tiebreaker with New Orleans if both were to finish at 13-3 or 12-4.

"Oh, in tune, in tune," Harbaugh said of the implications of Monday night's result. It might affect how much he uses his starters and regulars against the lowly Rams (2-13) on Sunday, too.

If Harbaugh wins at St. Louis, he would finish up his first year with the franchise's second-best record by a rookie NFL coach behind George Seifert's 14-2 showing in 1989. A sixth road win also would match the team's total of such victories from 2008-2010.

Harbaugh praised Michael Crabtree for his late, leaping 41-yard catch in traffic that set up Akers' final field goal, a go-ahead shot from 39 yards with 2:57 left that helped seal the win.

"In a lot of ways, Crab saved Christmas," Harbaugh said. "David Akers, in that mix, made it a little merrier."

For anyone who questioned Crabtree's contact with Seattle cornerback Brandon Browner on the play, Harbaugh emphatically made his point two days later: "Clean play. Any comment that it was not is baloney — full of baloney, bunch of baloney."

Harbaugh's 49ers have faced what they considered must-win games in recent weeks to stay in contention for the NFC's second seed. They have handled the pressure of prime time in a commanding 20-3 Monday night win against the Steelers last week that featured two power outages and delays, Then they dealt with a hostile Seattle environment only five days later.

"That's good," Gore said. "That's like the playoffs. If you want to go to the next round, you've got to win."

San Francisco is 5-2 on the road this season, coming from behind to earn four of those victories — something the team couldn't do during its playoff drought. This marks the team's most success and wins away from Candlestick Park since the last playoff season in 2002, with the team going 14-50 on the road over the previous eight years, 1-7 last season under coach Mike Singletary, who was replaced by Harbaugh this year. The 12 total victories also are the most since the 2001 group finished 12-4.

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