Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
For the first time since 2011, the Faithful are set to enjoy meaningful football in January. The 49ers are matched up with the Minnesota Vikings for the first game of the Divisional Round action on Saturday. What are the biggest storylines headed into this game?
Playoff Firsts for Many
Saturday will mark a first for so many in the 49ers franchise, including Levi’s Stadium. Head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch will finally see the fruition of three years of roster building and development. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, owner of two Super Bowl rings, will be taking the field as the starter for the first time in his career. In fact, outside of a few key veterans like left tackle Joe Staley and cornerback Richard Sherman, a vast majority of the 49ers’ roster will be playing in their first playoff games. How will the young squad handle the pressure?
Shanahan vs. His Former Protégé
When Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins, he and his father, Mike, selected QB Kirk Cousins in the fourth round of the 2012 draft. After Cousins’ relationship with Washington soured, many an expert believed that Shanahan would attempt to bring him to the Bay to continue their previous relationship. Then John Lynch pulled off the trade for Garoppolo and the rest is history. Now, seven years later, Shanahan and Cousins will face off with more on the line than ever before. Can Shanahan give defensive coordinator Robert Saleh the extra boost to keep the Vikings in check?
49ers Defense Getting Healthy at the Right Time
Injuries have long been the bane of the 49ers. It seems as if year to year, they have the talent but cannot keep them on the field. Coming into this weekend, Robert Saleh will be getting back defensive end Dee Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander and safety Jaquiski Tartt. Very rarely will a team entering the playoffs get back a playmaker at each level of their defense returning from injury. The pass rush has clearly been missing a beat since Ford was sidelined with a calf issue and S Marcel Harris has taken his lumps while filling in for the Tartt. However, the biggest surprise is the return of Alexander who was placed on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle in November. Can these three players live up to his wild stat on Saturday?
Vikings Riding a High
Not many gave the Vikings a chance to travel to New Orleans and beat the Saints in the Superdome but that is exactly what they did. Following the wild overtime victory, Cousins ignited the locker room with his famous line, “You like that?” It represented Cousins getting the proverbial monkey off of his back after being labeled as a quarterback unable to win the big game. Often times, success in the playoffs is not necessarily achieved by the best teams but the ones that are healthiest and carrying the hottest hand. Will the Vikings being able to keep this ball rolling against the 49ers?
Shanahan Back in the Playoffs
Although this is his first playoff game as a head coach, Kyle Shanahan does come with experience on the world’s biggest stage. His last appearance in the playoffs was the infamous Super Bowl LI in which the Atlanta Falcons blew a 28-3 lead against the New England Patriots. Since that day, the stigma of not being able to perform when everything is on the line has unfairly followed Shanahan around the league. Can he take the next step?
You can follow Matt on Twitter here!
Stay tuned to 49ersHub for more great 49ers coverage and analysis!