Niners coach Jim Harbaugh is making one thing clear this week: A playoff bye week is nothing like the break teams get near midseason.
Still, Harbaugh’s NFC West champions are relishing some extra prep time considering all the players trying to get healthy ahead of the franchise's first playoff game in nine years.
''It feels like an advantage. How big, we'll see,'' Harbaugh said of the extra week. ''I know this: We're not going to treat it like a vacation. It's not a midseason bye, in my view, where you can afford to come back in midseason form. We'll treat it as such. We'll get the players some well-deserved rest and the coaches will work hard on game planning and familiarizing ourselves with potential opponents. And we'll look forward to two good days of practice this week.''
Harbaugh did acknowledge that he spoke about the schedule with his big brother John, the Baltimore Ravens head coach whose team also gets the opening week of playoff games off as the AFC's second seed.
The Harbaugh brothers, both leading their teams to the No. 2 playoff seeds in their respective conferences. Now, that’s not something you see every day. Or ever before in league history, for that matter.
''Compared notes,'' Jim Harbaugh said. ''Some things are the same, some are different.''
Many of the 49ers (13-3) are sore with nicks, bruises and other ailments, so that's an important factor in the team getting an extra week of rest before diving into the all-out urgency of playoff football.
Linebacker Patrick Willis is working to return to top form from a right hamstring injury, while star running back Frank Gore has dealt with nagging knee and ankle injuries. Tight end Delanie Walker has a jaw injury and star kick returner Ted Ginn Jr. missed the team’s final two games with an injured left ankle.
Rookie cornerback Chris Culliver bruised his left knee in Sunday's 34-27 win at St. Louis and was limping through the locker room a day later. Wide receiver Kyle Williams is recovering from a concussion.
Walker, whose jaw was believed to be broken though Harbaugh hasn't confirmed it, is scheduled to be re-evaluated Wednesday before the team determines whether to keep him on the roster for the playoffs or place him on season-ending injured reserve.
FOR NOW, THE 49ERS COACHES AND PLAYERS will spend their time watching film of the potential opponents for their Jan. 14 divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
That’s the venue where the Niners shocked the New York Giants in their last postseason appearance in a NFC Wild Card game in January of 2003. San Francisco rallied from a 38-14 deficit in the third quarter to stun the Giants 39-38 in one of the greatest comebacks in NFL playoff history.
The Niners already can envision a possible date with New Orleans, which whipped San Francisco 24-3 in the Big Easy back in the teams' August exhibition opener. That seems like so long ago now.
Atlanta or the Giants are the other possible matchups for next week’s game. The third-seeded Saints host the sixth-seeded Detroit Lions on Saturday and the fourth-seeded Giants host the fifth-seeded Falcons on Sunday. The 49ers will host the highest remaining seed from those two games, which many believe leaves them on a collision course with the 13-3 Saints.
While the 49ers were hardly in a celebratory mood after allowing the Rams to rally late after San Francisco built a 34-13 lead with 6:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, they do feel good about their position heading into the postseason. The team's 10 total turnovers this year – five lost fumbles and five interceptions by quarterback Alex Smith – match the 2010 New England Patriots for fewest in the NFL since 1941. The five interceptions also match the NFL record for fewest by a team in a season.
''Winning the ballgame felt better by the hour,'' Harbaugh said. ''They found ways to win games all through the season. When you look through the body of work, the evidence is there. The team should be proud of that. I think one of the great things about this 2011 team is their ability to find ways to win, finish games. The evidence is there. And it's good to win in different ways.''
Right guard Adam Snyder, for one, planned to stay in town and continue to work all week at team headquarters. The 49ers will hold a workout Wednesday, then resume their practice routine Thursday.
''There's nowhere for me to go. We have some of the most important games that we've had coming up, so the bye week is nice for rest but there's still some business that we have to take care of. That's important to me to be here,'' Snyder said. ''I think any time you get rest it helps. Some of the games we've played have been very physical, so any rest we can get is going to help for sure.''
Williams plans to be back in the mix this week, and Harbaugh said he expects his special teams standout on the field once practices begin.
''I feel back to normal,'' said Williams, who sat out last week’s game with his concussion.
Williams was jarred on a helmet-to-helmet hit by former 49er Michael Robinson after a fourth-quarter kickoff return in a 19-17 win at Seattle on Dec. 24. Robinson was penalized for unnecessary roughness.
WHILE THE NINERS PREPARE FOR THE PLAYOFFS during their bye week, the team can't avoid news about next season. It is being widely reported that the team might have to deal with losing its eighth offensive coordinator in eight years.
Greg Roman, who has helped revive the career of quarterback Alex Smith and who has installed a creative running game with the team this year, interviewed for the opening at Penn State to replace Joe Paterno. He is believed to be a finalist for the position.
Roman was offered the head-coaching job at Tulane but turned it down. Penn State is expected to make a decision next week.
Harbaugh has pushed Roman, special teams coach/assistant head coach Brad Seely and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio as candidates for head-coaching jobs.
Harbaugh has backup plans if any of them leave. Should the 49ers lose Roman, they will likely rely more on Harbaugh, and the team might promote highly-regarded quarterbacks coach Geep Chyrst to the coordinator role.
What the 49ers haven't had before is a system of offense that remains even when the coordinator leaves, and that's caused a series of damaging disruptions, particularly for Smith. However, Harbaugh provides a failsafe should Roman depart.
There are also rumors that defensive line coach Jim Tomsula will return to his native Pittsburgh in some capacity with new Pitt coach Paul Chryst, Geep's brother.
Tomsula could be the 49ers' best position coach. He was the team’s interim head coach for last year’s 38-7 demolition of Arizona in the season finale after Mike Singletary was fired after a Week 16 loss at St. Louis.
HARBAUGH AGAIN MADE IT CLEAR THIS WEEK regarding his intention to bring back Smith as the 49ers’ quarterback. Harbaugh has told Smith, who can become a free agent later this year, that the team plans to re-sign him beyond this season.
Smith, the No. 1 overall selection of the 2005 NFL draft, received a $4.9 million, one-year contract as a free agent last July after the lockout – when many, including Smith himself, figured he'd be headed elsewhere following six tumultuous seasons in San Francisco. Smith has thrived this season under the tutelage of Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback who recently endorsed Smith as the team's answer behind center moving forward.
''I've told Alex that,'' Harbaugh said Monday. ''I wouldn't tell you (the media) something I wouldn't tell Alex.
''I told Alex, `Hey, we're going to want you to come back here next year.' He's focused on the season, and that's where his mindset wants to be. And I totally respect that, and we'll talk about it and address it once the season is over. That's the way I understand it right now.''
The 27-year-old Smith threw for 3,150 yards and 17 touchdowns with only five interceptions this season in easily the best year of his career. His career-best 90.7 passer rating ranked him ninth among the NFL’s leading quarterbacks.
Smith – booed from every direction during recent seasons at Candlestick Park – has said much of this season's success comes from him not trying to do too much in Harbaugh's West Coast offense. He has played for seven different offensive coordinators in his seven NFL seasons.
He has shown the poise under pressure and decision making Harbaugh believed Smith still had in him when Harbaugh took over last January. Smith isn't ready to reflect on his resurgent 2011 season or the franchise's turnaround after going eight years without a playoff berth or winning record.
He’s focused instead on the first playoff game of his career.
''You know, it's hard when you're still in the thick of it. It's probably a better question to ask me after the end of the season when everything is wrapped up,'' he said. ''Right now there's still a lot on the line. Not quite time for me to reflect on anything. We've done some good things, putting ourselves in a good situation.''
IN THE NFL, TO THE VICTORS go the … toughest schedules the following season.
That’s certainly the case for the 49ers in 2012.
By virtue of their first-place finish in the NFC West, the Niners will face a brutal slate of opponents next season, particularly when they go on the road.
The 49ers will have to face three of the NFL’s best teams this year on the road next season when they travel to NFC North champion Green Bay (15-1 this year), NFC South champion New Orleans (13-3) and AFC East champion New England (13-3).
Those are the only three times in the league this year that had a record better than or equal to San Francisco’s.
The Niners also will have road games against their three divisional rivals in the NFC West – Seattle, Arizona and St. Louis – along with trips to play at Minnesota and at New York against the AFC East runner-up Jets.
The Niners will host games next season at Candlestick Park against the Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams along with the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and NFC East champion New York Giants.
The official 2012 schedule, with playing dates and times, will be announced later this year.
THE 49ERS WON’T HAVE STEVE SPAGNUOLO to kick around any longer after the Rams fired Spagnuolo on Monday after three seasons as their head coach.
The 49ers went 5-1 against Spagnuolo-coached St. Louis teams, outscoring the Rams 163-78 in those games and blanking them with shutouts twice. St. Louis’ only victory during that span was 25-17 in Week 16 last year – a result that cost the 49ers a trip to the playoffs and cost Mike Singletary his job as head coach of the team.
Now it’s Spagnuolo who’s out of a job after going 10-38 in St. Louis.
He isn’t the only one out after the Rams cleaned house Monday morning.
When the decision was made, it came swiftly, and with no surprises.
In his first major decision since becoming owner of the Rams during the 2010 season, Stan Kroenke fired general manager Billy Devaney along with Spagnuolo and officially began the process of finding replacements.
In a statement, Kroenke said, "This was a difficult decision for many reasons. We have tremendous respect for Steve and Billy as people and football professionals. No one individual is to blame for this disappointing season and we all must hold ourselves accountable. However, we believe it's in the best interest of the St. Louis Rams to make these changes as we continue our quest to build a team that consistently competes for playoffs and championships."
Said Kevin Demoff, the Rams' vice president of football operations and chief operating officer, "We need to find new leadership. We have a chance to change the direction and the vision of our football team, not that it was completely wrong. I think in many ways, in fact I know in many ways we're a better organization for the time that Steve and Billy were both here. They improved this organization in many ways, but at the same time, you want to find people who can take us to new heights and people who can return us to what this franchise can be."