Struggling Akers to battle Cundiff to keep his job
As David Akers attempted a 43-yard field goal Sunday, a television camera zeroed in on Jim Harbaugh's pained and grimacing face. "Barely," the 49ers head coach said as the third-quarter attempt passed inside the upright to give the 49ers a 10-6 lead.
Akers previously had missed two attempts from 40 yards and beyond, and Harbaugh did not give the kicker a chance at two additional long-distance kicks, electing to go for it on fourth down instead.
Now Harbaugh and special teams coordinator Brad Seely must make a potentially huge decision — cut ties with Akers, who set an NFL record for field goals made last year but who can't recapture that 2011 form, or cast their playoff lot with former Washington Redksins kicker Billy Cundiff, whom the 49ers signed Tuesday.
The 49ers have some time to make a decision between the two. They earned a first-round bye and host a game at Candlestick Park on Jan. 12 against an undetermined opponent.
Harbaugh has stuck up for Akers, a 14-year veteran who starred in high school at Tates Creek and in college at Louisville, throughout the season, hoping he'd break out of a long slump that has seen him miss 13 attempts in the past 14 games. Two of those misses came in overtime games — a tie and a loss — against the Rams.
Cundiff missed a last-second, game-tying, 32-yard field goal for the Ravens against the Patriots last year in the AFC Championship game. He also struggled earlier this year — 7-for-12 on field-goal attempts — for the Redskins and was released.
"We want to make the right decision," Harbaugh said Monday before the team signed Cundiff. "David's certainly in it. He's done a lot of great things for us. He's made a lot of great kicks, a lot of big kicks. And 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 the competitor that Dave is, I don't think he'll have a problem with that."
A year ago, Akers made an NFL-record 44 field goals and was a major component of the 49ers' winning formula. Earlier this year, he landed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after making a 63-yard attempt just before the half in Green Bay. But he's had far fewer attempts from close range this year compared to last. And he's been terrible — 9-for-19 — from 40 yards and beyond. Akers finished the season with a 69 percent accuracy rate, the worst of his career and the 30th best of any full-time kicker this season.
"Kickers go through, at times, slumps," Harbaugh said Monday. "They'll go through it and maybe come out of it quickly. Sometimes it lingers a little bit. But have I been surprised that (Akers) hasn't made those kicks? Yeah, we understand that's the job of the kicker — put it through the uprights."
Green-Ellis starts week on sidelines
BenJarvus Green-Ellis didn't suit up for the Cincinnati Bengals' practice on Tuesday. He wore black sweatpants and a gray hooded sweatshirt, running by himself at one end of the University of Cincinnati's covered football field while everyone else ran plays.
Green-Ellis had a sore hamstring during pre-game warm-ups and sat out a 23-17 win over Baltimore on Sunday, leaving Cincinnati with questions about its top runner heading into a playoff game Saturday at Houston.
Coach Marvin Lewis wouldn't discuss his top running back's status. Green-Ellis spent most of the open locker room period in the trainer's room away from the media.
"We're going to prepare to run the ball like we do every week and hopefully BenJarvus is healthy," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said after practice. "He's got a little twinge right now, but it looks like he's going to be fine. It will be important to us.
"We have other backs also that can run the ball. We're not going to change our plan at all. It never varies. We have a good run plan going in, but Houston's a good run defense as we all know. It's going to be important to try to force the issue."
Woodson ready to return for Packers
Charles Woodson was cleared to play again, and the Green Bay Packers are counting on the defensive back to provide a lift in Saturday night's playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings.
Woodson deferred to team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie and gave his broken collarbone as much time to heal as possible, sitting out Sunday's regular-season finale at Minnesota. He was injured on Oct. 21 and has missed nine consecutive games. But now that the Packers are in win-or-go-home mode, Woodson will be back.
Pistons hold off Kings for 3rd straight win
Greg Monroe had 18 points and 11 rebounds, and the Detroit Pistons held off the Sacramento Kings 103-97 on Tuesday night for their first three-game winning streak of the season. Sacramento cut a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit to one, and Detroit led 100-97 when Austin Daye made a three-pointer with the shot clock running down with 11.5 seconds left at Auburn Hills, Mich.
The Pistons also got 20 points and four assists from former Kentucky standout Brandon Knight, and Tayshaun Prince had 10 points and six rebounds. DeMarcus Cousins had 21 points and 14 rebounds for the Kings.
■ Josh Smith scored 10 of his 23 points in the third quarter to lead the visiting Atlanta Hawks to a 95-86 victory over the New Orleans Hornets. Al Horford added 20 points. The Hornets' Anthony Davis struggled from the floor, making four of nine shots for nine points but had 13 rebounds and four blocked shots.
■ The Portland Trail Blazers overcame Carmelo Anthony's season high-tying 45 points and spoiled Amare Stoudemire's season debut, beating the host New York Knicks 105-100. Stoudemire finished with six points on 3-for-8 shooting and one rebound in 17 minutes off the bench in his return from knee surgery.
■ Vince Carter scored 23 points, O.J. Mayo (Rose Hill) and Darren Collison each added 15 to help the Dallas Mavericks break their six-game losing streak with a win at Washington. Shelvin Mack (Bryan Station) had seven points and six assists for the Wizards.
Maryland extends its win streak to 12
Freshman guard Seth Allen scored 13 points and Maryland completed its non-conference schedule on a 12-game winning streak by beating IUPUI 81-63 Tuesday at College Park, Md. Logan Aronhalt came off the bench and finished with 10 points for the Terrapins (12-1), who haven't lost since falling to then-No. 3 Kentucky 72-69 in the season opener.
Former Eastern High School star Lyonell Gaines scored 14 points for IUPUI (6-12). Donovan Gibbs (Iroquois) had 13.
Lady Vols' Burdick has broken hand
Tennessee forward Cierra Burdick is out indefinitely after breaking a bone in her right hand. Although the 12th-ranked Lady Vols didn't practice Monday, Burdick was working out on her own when she fractured the fourth metacarpal of her shooting hand.
There is no timetable for Burdick's return, though she's expected to be back before the end of the season.
Burdick, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, ranks fourth on the team in scoring (8.8) and third in rebounding (6.5).
The Lady Vols (9-3) open their Southeastern Conference schedule Thursday at No. 18 South Carolina (11-1).
The last word
Osi Umenyiora has spent the majority of his New York Giants career thinking he was worth more than he was being paid. He's about to find out if he was right. Using the most direct language yet about his future with the only team he's ever known, saying it's time to "move on," Umenyiora will hit the open market. He told ESPN:
"I've earned the right to be a free agent. It's been 10 years. I signed a seven-year deal and they made me play out all seven of those years. If they wanted me back, I think something would have been done before now."