On 3rd-and-2 near midfield, Kirk Cousins connected with Stefon Diggs on a 41-yard bomb downfield that turned into the Minnesota Vikings first (and only) touchdown of the game. Third-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon got turned in coverage on the play, allowing Diggs to waltz his way into the end zone.
By the start of the Vikings next series, backup Emmanuel Moseley was in at right cornerback in place of Witherspoon. Moseley went on to allow just three receptions on six passes for 24 yards and totaled five tackles and two pass breakups against the Vikings. His performance aided the 49ers to their 16th title game in franchise history. Moseley's relief aside, head coach Kyle Shanahan was equally impressed with Witherspoon's response to the 49ers early switch at corner.
Since Week 12, Witherspoon hadn't played a single snap on special teams. That changed on Saturday. Moments after being pulled from the lineup, Witherspoon approached 49ers special teams coordinator Richard Hightower to help relieve Moseley on kick and punt coverage to help benefit his teammate – as Shanahan sees it, a testament to the "attitude" of the 49ers locker room.
"For Ahkello to get replaced by Emmanuel early in that game, he handled it great," Shanahan said. "He went right up to Hightower right after that like 'Hey, Coach pulled me. They're going with E-man. But hey, I'm good. Make sure you give me all E-man's reps, everything he has on special teams. I'll do whatever I can to help. He needs his energy. You put me in on special teams.'"
Witherspoon's confidence never faltered. The corner stepped in and played seven special teams snaps and also returned to relieve Richard Sherman late in the fourth quarter.
"(I) didn't make the play, and that's the next move is to put in the next guy behind me who can play the game at a very high level," Witherspooon said postgame. "I've been playing this game a long time. I put a lot of work into this game. Sometimes plays don't go your way. And that's life. I believe in God, too. I believe in my story. I believe in my final end place. And everything in the middle is a bump in the road."
The same can be said for running back Tevin Coleman, who hadn't seen more than 13 carries since the first half of the season. Coleman has spent the second half of the year behind Raheem Mostert, who has certainly had the 49ers "hot hand", stringing together six-straight games with a rushing touchdown to close out the season and an average of 70 yards a game. Coleman's patience earned him the bulk of the 49ers 47 carries against the Vikings as the running back put up 105 yards on the ground on 22 carries and two touchdowns while relieving Mostert who dealt with cramps in game.
"Raheem's calf cramped up a little bit so he missed a series and Tevin did real good on that series. Really good," Shanahan said. "So we kept him in for another series and he did real well and by the time the third one came, there was no point to put Raheem back in with his calf cramping… That's what's really neat about our backs. All of them have, at different times, been the best player on the field throughout this year."
Selflessness is what makes the 49ers locker room special. But the ability to put the team first is just one of many examples of the "championship mentality" this team will rely on as they prepare for their first NFC title game in six years.
"Guys are helping out anyway they can," Shanahan said. "It's just that type of attitude where you haven't had to call many people in to say that," Shanahan added. "I think our guys have a lot of love for each other all across the board and you got everyone out there doing whatever they can to try to get this one on Sunday and hopefully one after that."