SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers made it through the regular season in the best possible shape to set themselves up for a run at the Super Bowl.
Coach Kyle Shanahan’s team won the NFC West with a 13-3 record and earned home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
After a bye week in the playoffs, the 49ers open their postseason Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings. What happens next will determine how the 49ers look back on this season.
“There's only going to be one team that's truly happy at the end of this year,” Shanahan said. “We've gotten to a point that we're excited about where we got, especially compared to these last two years.
“We have one expectation now. We're not going to sit back and enjoy what we've done because it's about what you're doing right now and where you're going.”
The 49ers need to be clicking on Saturday to get past the Vikings, road winners of their wild-card meeting last weekend over the New Orleans Saints. Here are five important 49ers who can help deliver the NFC Championship Game to Levi’s Stadium next weekend:
5. RT Mike McGlinchey
Mike McGlinchey’s rookie debut in 2018 was memorable.
McGlinchey started against the Vikings at right tackle. But midway through the game, he moved to right guard when starter Mike Person and backup Joshua Garnett were injured. That is how his NFL career began.
McGlinchey has played no position other than right tackle since that game. He will face one of his biggest challenges Saturday, as he goes up against Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter.
Hunter recorded 14.5 sacks this season. All but one originating from the left side against the opponent’s right tackle. He carried that momentum into the playoffs with a strip-sack against the New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in the wild-card round win last week.
After a slow start to the season and missing more than a month with a knee injury, McGlinchey is coming on strong. He has yielded just two sacks in the past seven games. In Week 17 against the Seattle Seahawks, he did not allow a single quarterback pressure.
4. DT DeForest Buckner
Nick Bosa has gotten a lot of attention this season. Arik Armstead had his breakout year. Dee Ford is a presence coming off the other edge, but it is uncertain whether his balky hamstring will allow him to play.
DeForest Buckner did not put up the gaudy statistics of a year ago, but he still is the 49ers defensive lineman who is most capable of dominating a game on run downs as well as in nickel situations. He will have to come through with a complete game Saturday.
Buckner’s ability to close gaps will be a major key in the 49ers’ attempt to bottle up Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. Then, Buckner has to push the pocket on throwing downs to give the team’s edge rushers a better opportunity to make quarterback Kirk Cousins uncomfortable.
3. TE George Kittle
The Vikings defense did a good job against tight ends this season. But they have never faced anyone quite like George Kittle.
Kittle is the 49ers’ best pass-catcher. He had 85 receptions for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns despite missing two games with injuries to his knee and ankle. Kittle is a tone-setter, too.
When the 49ers need a jolt of energy, emotion and production, Kittle often is the player to supply it. The Vikings will be focused on trying to take away Kittle in the passing game. But he can impact the game in other ways, too.
Kittle also enjoys run-blocking. He is among the best-blocking tight ends in the league. And if the 49ers are able to run the ball successfully, that will give the offense more opportunities to feature Kittle in the passing game.
2. CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Third-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon struggled in Week 16 against the Los Angeles Rams. And he was benched before the final drive of the 49ers’ 26-21 victory over the Seattle Seahawks – shortly before the most-important defensive series of the season.
But Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh both said afterward that Witherspoon did not play as poorly as it might have looked at the time. So Witherspoon will be back in the starting lineup Saturday.
Of course, Cousins will go after Witherspoon’s side of the field with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. On the other side, Richard Sherman probably will not be challenged too often. The heat will be on Witherspoon. If he falters, the 49ers are prepared to make a sudden change to Emmanuel Moseley.
1. QB Jimmy Garoppolo
This is Jimmy Garoppolo’s first playoff game, but don’t tell that to Shanahan. He says every game the last month or more of the regular season has felt like a playoff game to him.
His advice this week to Garoppolo: “Just be you. Do the same thing you do every single day.”
This is what the 49ers had in mind when they traded a second-round pick to the New England Patriots for Garoppolo at the mid-point of the 2017 season. Garoppolo has not seemed fazed by the pressure up to this point, but he has never faced pressure quite like this.
With the Vikings’ pass rush and their ability to generate takeaways in their defensive backfield, Garoppolo has to be on top of his game for the 49ers advance to the next round.