49ers K David Akers looks like the underdog to kick for the 49ers in the playoffs. (US Presswire)

Billy Cundiff is off to a good start in his attempt to supplant David Akers as the San Francisco 49ers kicker in the playoffs.

In the portion of practice that is open to the media, Cundiff was more accurate and displayed a bigger leg than Akers, who struggled from beyond 40 yards.

Coach Jim Harbaugh took to shagging kicks as he monitored each kicker's progress and general manager Trent Baalke made a rare appearance, watching intently behind each player as they kicked Thursday.

Afterward, Akers revealed he had surgery for a double sports hernia in February and suffered a flair up against New Orleans on Nov. 25 that required a trip to see his doctor in Philadephia for injections. Akers, however, refused to use the injury as the reason for his struggles. 

"I could kick through it. I went on what the doctors and the trainers said," Akers said. "I’m just happy that last week I didn’t end up costing the team the division."

Akers has made just 24 of his last 37 attempts and missed on attempts of 40 and 44 yards in the regular-season finale against Arizona. Unlike some of his misses earlier in the season, the misses against Arizona were not well struck.

Neither player has been informed how the team plans to select a kicker for its first playoff game at Candlestick Park on Jan. 12.

Cundiff, who missed a potential game-tying 32-yard field goal at the end of regulation in the AFC championship game last year for Baltimore, was cut by the Ravens after training camp and then during the season by Washington after converting just seven of 12 field goal attempts.

"I didn’t really think it was that great to be honest. I missed a 62-yarder and 57-yarder," Cundiff said. "If you wipe those off, it’s a 70 percent which is pretty average. But I missed two short field goals and when you’re playing in Washington, that’s enough to get you gone."

Akers and Cundiff got to know each other when they both made the trip to the Pro Bowl following the 2010 season. Cundiff said they've shared occasional text messages since, kicked together in the offseason and were tutored by Ravens kicking consulted Randy Brown.


"I don’t think it is. You just accept it as part of the business," Cundiff said. "It’s just about performance. When you put it on those terms, it takes all of the awkwardness out of it. It’s a performance business."

Justin Smith returns: Pro Bowl DT Justin Smith returned to practice Thursday for the first time since leaving in the third quarter against New England on Dec. 16 with a partially torn left triceps tendon. Smith wore a brace on his left elbow.

It was a pretty light practice, so Smith wasn't able to gauge where he stood in terms of being ready to play in a game.

"We really haven’t played or done anything yet," he said. Hopefully they run right at me and we find out quick."

Follow 49ers reporter Kyle Bonagura on Twitter @CBS49ers and @KyleBonagura.