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Playoff Preparation is Underway

Posted Jan 5, 2012

For all the talent inside the locker room at 49ers headquarters, there isn’t a ton of postseason experience. That’ll change next week, when the 49ers host their first playoff game in nine years before a sold-out crowd at Candlestick Park.

Long snapper Brian Jennings is the only player remaining from the 2002 team that knocked off the New York Giants with a stunning comeback in the first round of the playoffs. For Jennings, a return to the postseason couldn’t come soon enough.

“It was exhausting,” Jennings said. “It’s dog years when you lose.”

Just like years past, players like Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis and Frank Gore will be watching the playoffs from their homes this weekend. But unlike years past, they’ll be doing so as a part of a team with a first-round bye.

Excited. Eager. Ready.

These were some of the words being thrown around the 49ers locker room on Thursday afternoon.

“I don’t know what to expect,” Davis said. “I’m just going with the flow.”

Though he won’t be on the field making tackles or catching passes next week, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke is a major player in the organization’s newfound success. Take a look at the roster and it’s evident Baalke and his staff were smart enough to recognize the quality players already in the building.

Sure, free-agent signings like David Akers, Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner and Jonathan Goodwin have been paramount to the team’s success this year. But keeping the team’s core together by re-signing others like Dashon Goldson, Ray McDonald and Alex Smith has also paid off.

“He had a plan,” Goldson said of Baalke. “He stuck with it and look where we’re at now. We always had the players here and he did a good job of getting other players in here. He just kept building and adding little pieces to it.”

The 49ers only have 10 players with playoff experience, but feature a couple with Super Bowl rings: Goodwin and receiver Brett Swain.

Goodwin won his ring with the New Orleans Saints in 2010 while Swain won his with the Green Bay Packers last season, making three special teams tackles in the biggest game of his life. Though Goodwin and Swain will try to help out their teammates with what to expect in the postseason, there’s nothing like the real thing.

“You have to live through it yourself,” said Whitner, who missed the playoffs the last five seasons in Buffalo. “You can ask questions and watch playoff games on TV, but there’s no substitution for actually being out there and understanding that if you lose this football game you’re going home.”

Uncharted as the waters may be, the 49ers are staying the course during their bye week. There’s a reason they are 13-3 and able to heal up their bumps and bruises.

It starts with Jim Harbaugh, who is the only rookie head coach in NFL history to guide his team to at least 13 wins following a losing season. On Monday, Harbaugh said he expects his team to keep its same approach heading into the postseason.

When you finish the regular season with one of the league’s stingiest defenses, most efficient offenses and historically good special teams units, why change?

“The bigger the games get, I think you fall back on your routine and your preparation,” Smith said. “It’s still the same game. You don’t need to do anything different. I think that’s what needs to be the focus for all of us.”

In a sense, you could say the 49ers have been primed for the postseason by the way they finished out the year. With the Saints nipping at their heels for a first-round bye, the 49ers needed to close out the season with three wins to hold onto to the No. 2 seed.

They did just that.

After a dominating 20-3 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football in Week 15, the 49ers wrapped up the regular season with two tough wins on the road against NFC West foes. Still, the 49ers expect another level of intensity when the ball is teed up for the 1:30 p.m. kick-off on Jan. 14.

“It’s an unreal experience,” Swain said. “But really, when the game starts, it turns into a normal football game. It just comes down to doing your responsibility.”