NEW ORLEANS - The San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens are fairly evenly matched - capable quarterbacks, strong running games, stout defenses - so Super Bowl XLVII could well be decided by a field goal.
That has to have the 49ers concerned, because field goals have been an unpredictable adventure for kicker David Akers this season.
A season after he set an NFL season record with 44 field goals, Akers has missed a league-high 14 tries this season, including an indoor 38-yard try in the NFC title game at Atlanta.
Had the 49ers reached the Super Bowl last season - and they were at the doorstep before losing in overtime to the New York Giants - a story line would have been about the reliable Akers, a six-time Pro Bowl kicker, going for the ring he didn't win when he played for Philadelphia.
The question now: Can the 49ers really count on Akers?
"Game of inches," Akers said Tuesday, surrounded by reporters at Super Bowl media day. "Six inches one way, three inches last week, a foot here. It's been one of those seasons where, if I had an answer for you, I would have changed it and the outcome would have been a lot different by now.
"Has it been frustrating? Sure. Personally, it's been a roller coaster year."
That included surgery in February for a double hernia, a ricochet for a record-tying 63-yard kick in the opener, a slew of missed kicks, and death threats on Twitter that prompted him to close his account.
"The year kind of went up and down, up and down, up and down," he said. "It's like, what's going on here? It's frustrating."
The 49ers share that mystified frustration, and at the start of the postseason signed Billy Cundiff to provide some competition. That came after a regular-season finale against Arizona, when the 49ers twice went for it on fourth down instead of letting Akers try an ostensibly makeable field goal.
"He's continued to work, he's continued to kick the ball through the uprights during practice and pregames, and unfortunately he's kicked a few in games that didn't go through the uprights. He's just grinding," long snapper Brian Jennings said. "It's a brutal, brutal business being a placekicker."
San Francisco released Cundiff heading into the conference title game. Had they kept him, it would have potentially created a strange story line, with Cundiff facing the Ravens. It was Cundiff's 32-yard miss at the end of last season's AFC championship game that kept Baltimore out of the Super Bowl.
Akers said he can't remember another time in his 14 seasons when a competing kicker was brought in so late in the season. Then again, he has never had a season like this one, when he has fielded dozens of emails and letters filled with unsolicited advice from fans.
"Supplements, training regimen, techniques," he said, recalling one sage who told him that he, as a left-footed kicker, should never kick from the right hash mark. He rolls his eyes still at the suggestion.
"They're not really face-to-face comments, so you don't really have a need to respond. You kind of laugh at it and throw it away. I've been doing this for a long time, and for people to think that we're not thinking and checking into the people who know us the best. ... You can't just change something dramatically. That would be ludicrous to do, when you've really had success with the model you've been using."
Before signing with the 49ers in 2011, Akers spent the previous 12 seasons with Philadelphia, leading the Eagles in scoring in 11 of those, the most in team history. He ranks second in the NFL with 164 postseason points, trailing only Adam Vinatieri's 196. Akers also has scored at least a point in his 23 postseason games, second to Vinatieri's streak of 25 games.
In addition, Akers is one of the few 49ers on the current roster who have played in a Super Bowl. His Eagles lost to New England in Jacksonville, Fla., eight years ago. He can draw on that big-game experience, as well as all the seasoning he got in his other 22 postseason games.
"This is what I do," he said. "I enjoy it, I have a lot of pride, I want to have success. I've been doing it for quite a while. But it's not exactly who I am, either. I look at my family, the health we have, the people I have in my life, and we love each other. I look at that and think that my job is great, it's a wonderful experience, but it doesn't necessarily define you as a person."