SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Jim Harbaugh had to go out of his way last season to keep his San Francisco 49ers focused following big wins, even inventing a fictional character to get the message across to players.
Now Freddie P. Soft is back.
Only this time, players are on the lookout.
Coming off a 34-0 victory at the New York Jets, the 49ers (3-1) are taking a more active approach to guard against complacency heading into Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills (2-2) at Candlestick Park. Or, as San Francisco prefers, a 4-inch character who tries to sneak into team headquarters and disrupt preparation.
Harbaugh joked Wednesday that Soft showed up a few weeks ago before practice but "other people noticed it first." He said experience with winning, which is no longer a surprise for a team that went 13-3 and finished a field goal shy of the Super Bowl last year, has taught his players Soft "might be lurking" at all times.
"We want to prevent that," said safety Donte Whitner, who played for Buffalo from 2006-10. "Even coming off a win like we did last week, we pretty much erased all that. We understand that coming forward that he'll continue to come in here."
Maybe no more so than this week.
San Francisco starts a stretch of three straight and five of six games at home against the embarrassed Bills, who make the cross-country trip after giving up 45 second-half points in a 52-28 loss to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Buffalo. The matchup also comes after the 49ers played one of their most complete games of the Harbaugh Era, too.
The dominating defensive performance kept the Jets out of the red zone all day and re-established the 49ers as one of the NFL's elite, erasing memories of that 24-13 loss at Minnesota in Week 3 that is suddenly looking like a blip. If San Francisco wants to stay among the league's best, especially with NFC West rival Arizona winning its first four games, players understand they need to stay focused.
And with a rare warm week bringing temperatures into the mid-90s at the team's Santa Clara headquarters, an already demanding practice schedule has taken on a different tone.
"A lot of guys really don't like Wednesday practice," Whitner said. "You're still sore from the previous game. There's a lot of clutter and information from the previous game we have to get cleaned up. But even on a day like today, we have to make sure we're ready."
After all, it was last October when Harbaugh first introduced Soft to San Francisco.
Now Fredrick P. Soft, as his full name goes, has multiple handles on Twitter. Players are familiar with the nickname, and even the usually closed-off Harbaugh had a laugh about his novel nemesis, later sitting in a chair during the open locker room period eating a hot dog and talking baseball.
"There was a day, one day, I remember that there was a sighting," Harbaugh said of Soft. "I just noticed like pre-practice before we got out there. He might be lurking."
Helping the 49ers focus this week is looking at the missed opportunities in New York. And even in such a lopsided victory, there were still noticeable miscues.
Chief among them: the still stagnant passing game.
Alex Smith completed 12 of 21 passes for 143 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. But he only completed 2 of 6 attempts beyond 20 yards, and the deep-threat some thought Randy Moss could be has remained absent.
Meaning once again, Soft could be present.
"You only seem to be as happy as your last game," Smith said. "As a quarterback, it's always, 'I could've done better' or 'What are the throws I could've made' or 'What could I've done differently?'
"The bottom line is getting the win. Obviously, it was a great win. Looking to get better and move on toward the Bills."
Notes: RB Brandon Jacobs could make his season debut Sunday against Buffalo. Jacobs, who has declared himself healthy enough to play, practiced Wednesday with a brace around his left knee. ... LB Patrick Willis was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week. He had 10 tackles, one interception and two passes defensed against the Jets. "Anytime one of us gets an award, the mindset we have with this team is when we win, we all win," Willis said. "When one person does good, we all do good."
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP
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