Earlier this week, the San Francisco 49ers grounds crew spent two days painting the end zones at Levi’s Stadium bright red. The 50-gallon effort, which was completed on Wednesday, needed several days to finish to be ready by Saturday.
Coupled with the iconic gold saloon font, straight out of Candlestick Park in the 1980’s, these extra decorative measures mean only one thing: The 49ers are back in the playoffs.
After earning the No. 1 seed in the NFC and a bye week thanks to a 26-21 win over the Seattle Seahawks in Week 17 of the regular season, San Francisco will begin it’s 2020 postseason run against the Minnesota Vikings Saturday afternoon.
Although Minnesota is the lowest seeded team in the NFC playoff bracket, the Vikings will not be an easy out for the 49ers by any stretch of the imagination. Last weekend, Minnesota stunned the No. 3 seeded New Orleans Saints in the Mercedes Benz Superdome with a 26-20 overtime win, punching its ticket to the Bay Area for a Divisional round matchup.
“Any time you beat a good team, it gives you a lot of confidence,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Especially when you do it in a tough place like [New Orleans]… I don’t know what that means but we’ll see how good we play on Saturday and how good they play on Saturday.”
Here are three things to watch when the 49ers take on the Vikings in the first-ever playoff game at Levi’s Stadium and of the Shanahan era.
Reinforcements have arrived
In the back-half of the regular season, the 49ers witnessed their defense, which began the season leading the NFL in yards allowed per game and opposing quarterback ratings, regress mightily.
This, in part, was due to the absence of a trio of starters who all dealt with injuries as the regular season wound down.
Defense end Dee Ford (hamstring), inside linebacker Kwon Alexander (pectoral muscle) and safety Jaquiski Tartt (ribs) missed a combined total of 19 games to end the season. This included Weeks 14-17 when all three were off the field.
Graced with its first bye week since early October, however, the 49ers have been able to get all three healthy enough to play on Saturday, giving hope that the trio will start together for the first time since Week 8.
On Wednesday, all three players returned to practice. While Tartt was the only one cleared to go full-tilt, the fact that Ford and Alexander were also able to participate bodes well for the depth and overall spirit of the 49ers defense.
“Three veteran players who were starters on this defense who make an impact,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said. “They all play at a high level. It will be great to have them back.”
According to Shanahan, Ford and Alexander have been cleared by the 49ers medical staff to play and it will ultimately be a coach’s decision as to who starts and who sees playing time on Saturday.
Garoppolo to make first playoff start
Jimmy Garoppolo is a two-time Super Bowl Champion. And while he has the rings to prove it, he does lack the actual in-game experience that typically comes with such titles.
That’s because Garoppolo served as backup to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who did not miss a snap on both championship runs. So while Garoppolo has technically been in the playoffs, he has yet to see the field during one.
That will all change on Saturday, however.
In his first postseason appearance, Garoppolo will start against the Vikings in a win-or-go-home scenario with an NFC Championship game at stake.
“I’ve been a part of some playoff game and seen the atmosphere of the building ramp up,” Garoppolo said. “You’ve got to feed off that energy a little bit. It’s the playoffs. You’ve got to love it.”
In games he’s started for the 49ers, Garoppolo boasts a 19-5 record dating back to the final five games of the 2017 regular season. This year, he led San Francisco to an NFC-best 13-3 record, earning the No. 1 seed in the process.
Even with those numbers, however, playing in the postseason is a different beast. What may be promising for Garoppolo is how he’s fared this season against teams that made the playoffs this year.
Earning a 3-2 record against the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, Baltimore Ravens and twice against the Seattle Seahawks, Garoppolo played some of his best football.
He passed for 1,300 yards, completed 67-percent of his passes, threw eight touchdowns to just two interceptions, averaged over nine yards per passing attempt and earned a 114.25 quarterback rating.
Needless to say, Garoppolo has found ways to produce in high-leverage situations with playoff implications at stake, primarily on the road.
“I think that he’s shown that he can handle himself in poise,” Shanahan said of Garoppolo. “He’s played some really good games. Just like everybody, hopefully he does it this Saturday, which will be his first playoff game. But, I think Jimmy has played in some pretty big games.”
Witherspoon to start
Midway through the fourth quarter in Seattle as the 49ers desperately tried to cling onto a five-point lead against the Seahawks, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh made a bold move.
As cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon struggled, routinely being picked on by Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, Saleh yanked the three-year veteran to play Emmanuel Moseley, who has shined this season in Witherspoon’s absence.
Just days ahead of San Francisco’s first playoff game in six years, though, the 49ers have decided to put Witherspoon back in the starting lineup to take on one of the best wide receiver tandems in the league.
“I think I played average,” Witherspoon said Wednesday. “But I’m not an average player so that’s a poor game to me.”
Witherspoon also said that he will make his first postseason start Saturday against the Vikings despite the benching in Seattle, which he declined to go into detail about.
Along with veteran corner Richard Sherman, Witherspoon will be taking on Minnesota receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, who combined for 1.548 yards and 12 touchdowns this season.
For Thielen, missing six games this year severely impacted his individual numbers but against New Orleans, the six-year wideout caught seven passes for 129 yards.
This included a 43-yard bomb from quarterback Kirk Cousins, which set the Vikings up at the Saints one-yard line three plays ahead of a game-winning touchdown pass from Cousins to tight end Kyle Rudolph.
“They both pose tremendous problems in the fact that Adam [Thielen] is a really, really good route runner. So is Stefon [Diggs],” Saleh said. “Either way it’s still a challenge because they both can win one-on-one matchups. They can both gain separation.”
In his last three starts, Witherspoon allowed 18 of the 22 passes thrown his way to be completed. 14 were for first downs and four for touchdowns.
Against Minnesota, the 49ers will need the Colorado product to clean his play up, otherwise he could see the bench sooner than the fourth quarter.