Sunday night had bled into morning by the time the 49ers walked off Gillette Field as winners over the Patriots. Back home Monday afternoon, coach Jim Harbaugh had to keep clearing his throat at his news conference – and he wasn’t on the defense that played a whopping 94 snaps in the 49ers’ 41-34 win at New England.
Linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, and safeties Dashon Goldson andDonte Whitner, were listed as being in for all 94 plays – 33 percent more than the defense averaged in 13 previous games.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers logged all but one, and corner Tarell Brown all but three, as the 49ers withstood a second-half flurry by the Patriots.
With that in mind, and the promise of another physical matchup when the 49ers play the Seahawks next Sunday in Seattle with a chance to wrap up the NFC West, the NFL’s No. 1 defense in points allowed may have a lighter workload in practice this week, Harbaugh said.
“It affected us during the game, especially the amount of plays and the tempo with which they were running their offense,” Harbaugh said. “It was tough playing in that stretch for our defense, but I’m very proud of the character of the team.
“It felt like both teams wanted to prove they were the better team,” he said. “You look at the hitting that went on during the entire course of the game … both teams really wanted it, to show that they were the better team.
“It was a great game.”
The 49ers secured a playoff berth by beating the Patriots and hold a 1 1/2-game lead over the Seahawks in the West with two games to play. San Francisco currently is in position for a No. 2 playoff seed, which comes with a first-round bye.
At least one player likened the Patriots game to a playoff environment, and Harbaugh said he expects a similarly charged atmosphere when the 49ers play in prime time – again – in Seattle.
Coaches began studying the Seahawks on the plane ride home, Harbaugh said.
Still unclear is the status of defensive end Justin Smith, who left Sunday’s game with an elbow injury in the third quarter. Smith had an MRI on Monday. Harbaugh did not share the results, though he indicated he doesn’t think Smith suffered a long-term injury.
“But it’s really going to be how he is today, tomorrow, Wednesday, before we know anything,” Harbaugh said. Smith has played in 188 consecutive games.
Smith, who anchors the 49ers’ defensive line, departed just as the Patriots were starting to turn a 28-point deficit into a 31-31 tie.
Harbaugh said the timing likely was not entirely coincidental. But he stopped short of naming Smith’s absence as the root cause of the Patriots scoring touchdowns on four consecutive drives.
“I thought the guys that came in stepped in and did some really good things,” Harbaugh said. “Really, the chances we had to get off the field didn’t come from that position. We made some errors elsewhere.”
Et cetera – David Akers kicked field goals of 20 and 28 yards Sunday but missed from 39 yards, his fourth miss in as many games.
Harbaugh stated firmly that the 49ers have “got to see him make those plays.” But he said there are no plans to make a change at kicker.
“Not at this time,” Harbaugh said.
Akers is 25 of 35 on field-goal attempts this season, a 71.4 percent rate that ranks 31st in the NFL. Sunday’s was just the second miss for Akers this season in 20 attempts from 39 yards or fewer. From 40 yards and beyond, Akers is 7 of 15.
• Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who entered the NFL in the 2005 draft with the 49ers’ Alex Smith, weighed in Monday on Smith being benched despite a 70 percent completion rate and career-high 104.1 passer rating in nine games before suffering a concussion this season.
“He’s a great quarterback,” Rodgers told the NFL Network. ”He just needs to go somewhere he gets appreciated for the skills he has, and hopefully he gets a chance next year.”