The San Francisco 49ers are just a day away from their playoff debut at Levi’s Stadium. Having earned the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye, Kyle Shanahan and Company have spent the last two weeks preparing for the team’s first postseason under the third-year head coach. The Minnesota Vikings await, having shocked the New Orleans Saints on Wildcard Weekend with a thrilling overtime win.
Here are five players to watch as the 49ers seek to punch their ticket to the NFC Championship:
LB Kwon Alexander
The 49ers are expected to activate Alexander before Friday’s 1 p.m. deadline. The 49ers’ emotional core on defense has spent the last two months on injured reserve after tearing his pectoral during the team’s Week 9 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. Alexander has since made it his mission to return from the injury, with the 49ers’ trip into the postseason helping make that a reality. If Alexander plays on Saturday as expected, his usage will be worth watching. Will he step right in and replace rookie Dre Greenlaw? Rotate in at SAM? Or some other combination? Either way, the uplift felt by Alexander’s return will be team-wide.
DE Dee Ford
At the start of the week, the 49ers seemed optimistic about Ford’s return to action. Now, that positivity seems to have waned to uncertainty. Ford practiced this week in limited fashion as he works his way back from a strained quadricep and hamstring, re-injured against the Saints in Week 14. Ford’s participation on Saturday is far from certain, but if he does play, his impact is profound. The 49ers’ defensive front is significantly more productive with Ford racing off the edge, but it’s unclear if the team will be willing to risk further aggravation.
S Jaquiski Tartt
Tartt’s return from fractured ribs is far more concrete. The 49ers’ standout strong safety has practiced in full this week, having shed the blue non-contact jersey he wore all last week. He’s another key player returning to a defense that has missed his decisiveness. Second-year safety Marcell Harris has filled for Tartt with mixed results. Tartt will likely play a large role in limited Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, who caught the game-winning touchdown in overtime against the Saints.
QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Garoppolo, like many on this young 49ers team, makes his playoff debut on Saturday. Sure, the 49ers’ franchise quarterback has experienced more than his fair share of postseason action while backing up Tom Brady in New England, but the sideline is no substitute. Garoppolo authored an impressive first full season as a starter in 2019, completing 69% of his passes for 3,978 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. It’s now time for Garoppolo to prove himself in the playoffs, facing a stingy Vikings defense that’s among the best in the league, but has shown vulnerability through the air.
CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Late in the game against the Seahawks, when the defense needed a stop, Witherspoon was on the sideline. He was benched after struggling in coverage, bullied by Seattle wideout DK Metcalf throughout the night. Per Pro Football Focus, Witherspoon gave us six receptions on eight targets for 71 yards and two touchdowns. Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley stepped in for Witherspoon, contributing to the 49ers’ game-winning goal-line stand. Witherspoon said on Wednesday that he’d be starting on Saturday against the Vikings’ standout receiving group of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Witherspoon’s performance opposite Richard Sherman could be a turning point in either direction for the defense.