The focus is on Minnesota as the San Francisco 49ers prepare to host their first playoff game in Levi's® Stadium history. After securing the No. 1 seed in Seattle, the 49ers received an extra week off to prepare for Saturday's matchup. It was a busy morning at 49ers HQ as Kyle Shanahan, Jimmy Garoppolo, Joe Staley, Emmanuel Sanders and Nick Bosa all met with the media to provide updates as the team prepares for the Vikings. Here are the top takeaways from Tuesday:
1. 49ers Getting Healthier at the Right Time
Kwon Alexander continues to inch closer to his return following a Week 9 pectoral injury that placed him on what appeared to be season-ending Injured Reserve. The 49ers opened the linebacker's practice window last week and Alexander was a limited participant during Tuesday's session. He's since been cleared to return to the field by San Francisco's medical staff. Shanahan revealed there's a "good chance" Alexander will be activated ahead of Saturday's divisional round matchup, which ultimately comes down to a coaching decision as this week progresses.
"I was told long ago that maybe there was an outside chance he would be ready for the championship game. That's what I've gone with in my mind," Shanahan said. "Kwon's been trying to get back since the day after he was hurt. So he's been trying to prove us wrong on that. He's a week ahead of schedule than we've anticipated. He's been cleared by the medical staff and now it's just about how he looks on the field. We'll have a padded practice tomorrow which will give us a better idea."
Dee Ford (hamstring), Mike Person (neck) and Kentavius Street (knee) were limited participants on Tuesday. Despite being on the week's injury report, it's likely that all three could be on hand against Minnesota. Ford returned to individual drills during Tuesday's session after being limited to conditioning on the sidelines during last week's practices.
More good news as the 49ers continue to get healthy in the postseason, Jaquiski Tartt was a full participant during Tuesday's practice. Tartt returned on a limited basis last week and wore a blue non-contact jersey. He will make his return on Saturday after missing the 49ers final four games of the regular season with a rib injury.
2. Jimmy Garoppolo's First Career-Playoff Start
Despite owning two Super Bowl rings of his own, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will make his first playoff start under center on Saturday. Looking back to the 49ers last five "playoff-caliber" matchups that each came down to the waning seconds of the game, Garoppolo and Co. believes that their final stretch of the regular season was adequate preparation for Saturday's showdown.
"I felt like last week (vs. Seattle Seahawks) was a playoff game," Shanahan said. "I think (Garoppolo's) shown he can handle himself with poise. 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. Anyone who is around him in those games and talks to him and stuff, it's not much different in those games with him as a preseason game. He stays pretty much the same."
Added Garoppolo: "We've had a couple of late games this season that just felt like playoff games. Starting with Seattle here, Baltimore, New Orleans, all those games. We've said it throughout the entire season, I think it's going to help us going forward. As far as the experience with it, I think just we don't have to deal with the noise and things like that. It will be a little different at home. Just the energy, the intensity that's out there, it's a little different."
3. Cornerback Conundrum
Second year cornerback Emmanuel Moseley was subbed in for Ahkello Witherspoon at cornerback during the 49ers Week 17 win over the Seattle Seahawks. While Witherspoon has earned his spot as San Francisco's starter this season, Shanahan hasn't revealed who gets the nod on Saturday against a Minnesota offense that features the likes of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
"I've got a pretty good idea which way we're leaning towards," Shanahan said. "It's not a big difference to me. I know it is to them because I know both of them want to get out there so bad. I think we've got two guys that I feel very confident in both of them helping us win. Whoever starts, it will be based off of who we think gives us the best chance on Saturday."
4. Containing Cook
Vikings running back Dalvin Cook is coming off of a 130-yard two-touchdown performance in the 26-20 win over the Saints. Cook missed the final two games of the regular season with a shoulder injury before returning in his monster performance in the Wild Card round. Nick Bosa is aware of the 49ers urgency to stop the run and neutralize Minnesota's sixth-ranked rushing offense.
"I've been watching him since Florida State. He's really good," Bosa said of Cook. "Not many people could just maintain the speed that he maintains through contact. He just makes cuts and never slows down. He's physical. They've got two of them, so it's going to be a challenge. We've played some good backs, but we haven't played him. We just got to bring it."
Putting up nine sacks, 25 quarterback hits, a whopping 80 pressures and earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl, Bosa is unfazed by the pressure of reaching the postseason during his rookie season.
"I got lucky coming into a really great team, first year get to play in the playoffs, get a Bye week to start out," he added. "Not many people get this opportunity in their careers. I'm just trying to latch onto the older guys and see what they're going to do to prepare, listen to all the tips my coaches have. But, I'm just super excited to still be playing football. Now every team you play is going to be a really good team, so we have to play our best."
5. Staley's Return to the Playoffs
If there's one word to describe Joe Staley's feelings about the postseason, it would be "excited." San Francisco's veteran left tackle will be making his fourth playoff appearance in his 13-year NFL career. Staley and Mike McGlinchey will have a tall task defending Vikings defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, who each recorded three quarterback hits and 1.5 sacks against Drew Brees on Sunday. Despite the elation of his first postseason appearance in six years, Staley is aware that he and his understudy must be stout counters for Minnesota's dynamic pair of defensive ends.
"The Vikings are very, very sound up front. They're a very sound defense," Staley said. "They have a lot of guys that have played in the system, played together for a long time. They know exactly where each other are going to be. It's really hard to get them out of position. So, it really just comes down to doing your techniques and your blocks. They have really talented players up front. Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen have been a great edge pairing in the NFL for a long time. They both present unique challenges as far as tackles go. But, all across the board, you look at everybody, they're a very sound defense. They play well together."
6. Bye-Bye, Bye Week
It's hard to envision anyone who appreciated the first-round Bye more than Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders became the first player ever to catch a pass in 17 games in a season, given the receiver was traded on Oct. 22, missing both the 49ers Week 4 and the Denver Broncos Week 10 Byes.
"(The Bye week) meant a lot," Sanders said. "A lot more than I thought it would have meant in how I feel today. If you would have asked me two weeks ago, I was like, 'What's going on with my body?' Certain things were just aching. My ankles were sore. My big toe was sore. Just everything. Now here I am, I had the little Bye, had the opportunity to get a break. Last week was really just jogging through a lot of stuff, now my body feels good and ready to go. It was definitely tough. I've seen a lot of things on Twitter saying if the NFL wants to change the season to 17 games, they should ask me, and I'd say no. My body was hurting and I needed that break."
Sanders has played through a rib injury from the 49ers Week 10 matchup against the Seahawks. His talent and experience will be relied on as he heads into his eighth postseason appearance this Saturday.
"If you asked me what does the playoff experience mean, I think it just comes naturally. I think the entire time since I got here, this team has been paying attention to the details," he added. "I feel like we've been locked in all season, ever since I got here."