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SANTA CLARA — Delanie Walker put his jaw on the line this week. He traded in his black practice jersey — the 49ers' code for "don't hit me" — for his usual red No. 46. And then he sat patiently in front of his locker for about 10 minutes, working his mandible nonstop to answer the questions everyone has been asking:

Is the jaw better? How hard can he practice? And most important of all, will he play against the New York Giants in the NFC championship game this Sunday?

"If they leave it up to me, of course I'm gonna play," Walker said Thursday, the day after he returned to the practice field. "I want to help my team out, and this is a big game, and I feel like if I'm out there maybe I can help out with the offense."

It will not be left up to the tight end. The 49ers medical and training staff will make the call on this one, in conference with coach Jim Harbaugh. The team kept Walker on the active roster heading into the playoffs, knowing there was little chance he could play against the Saints in Round 2. Now he'll have to win a race against time and biology to have a chance to face the Giants.

Walker's jaw was broken in two places — on the left side of his chin, and just under his left ear — in Week 16 when Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill inadvertently kneed him in the face while Walker was blocking for Frank Gore late in the first quarter at Seattle. Walker was not concussed and did not experience headaches, but he said he knew right away he had fractured the bone.

Doctors inserted wires in the upper and lower jaw and connected them with rubber bands to stabilize the area. Meanwhile, Walker went on a liquid diet for two weeks, slurping down protein shakes, soups, Boost nutritional drinks and a soggy mush made from blended rice.

What did he miss most? "Hamburgers," Walker said with a laugh.

By the week before the New Orleans game, he had progressed to soft foods like bananas and pasta. Amazingly, Walker said Thursday that he had lost just a few pounds during the ordeal. Doctors removed the wires Monday, clearing Walker to resume limited work on the field. It's hard to say exactly how limited, because reporters have access to only a tiny portion of practice.

"Really, I didn't do too much, so I won't say I was rusty," Walker observed. "I feel like I was good. Everybody said I looked faster and that I looked like I was over-hyper. Because you get back on the field, you try to do everything full speed."

Medical staff examined him after practice Wednesday, a process that Walker expected to become a daily ritual before Sunday. He said Friday he would be a game-time decision.

It was Walker's idea to shed the black jersey — perhaps a symbolic act since it's highly unlikely he would have been allowed to participate in contact drills.

"I felt like I didn't need it, so I took it off," Walker said. "I didn't want to be labeled as not being touched. For me to really know if I can play, I gotta be able to do some contact."

Walker wore an eye shield on Wednesday, and has switched to a Riddell Revolution helmet, which he said is "a little wider on the jaw area" and has a bigger facemask. He knows, however, he will be taking some risk onto the field if he plays again this season.

"It's a low chance of me re-breaking it in the same place. But it's possible it can happen. This is football, and they warned me of that," Walker said. "But I feel confident in myself and my doctors feel confident in me to let me go out there with a helmet and do a little bit, so I'm confident that I can do whatever I can to be out there."

Not being out there was frustrating for Walker. He has missed only five games in the past five seasons, despite being a core special-teams contributor.

"Hard," is how Walker described watching from the sidelines. "And that's why I'm trying to get back out there and do whatever I gotta do to be able to play. It's real hard to play the whole season and then not be able to play in the (postseason)."

It hasn't been ideal for the 49ers either. With 19 receptions for 198 yards and three touchdowns, Walker wouldn't seem to be a vital factor in the offense, certainly not compared to Gore or fellow tight end Vernon Davis. But Walker, a former wide receiver at Central Missouri State, is a matchup problem for defenses.

Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman line him up and motion him in a virtually infinite variety of ways. He's kind of the 49ers'wild card, and offense suffers when he's not in there.

"He's just one of those guys," Roman said. "He's talented physically. He's talented with what he can handle in terms of game planning. The load we put on him is very unique to what most players get in the NFL, or anywhere for that matter. He brings speed, playmaking ability, the ability to block in a variety of ways — in space, in the box. He's just a dynamic tight end."

Third-string tight end Justin Peelle took up most of the slack in Walker's absence. Peelle is no slouch. He's a reliable 10-year veteran with good dose of playoff experience, and both Harbaugh and Roman praised his play this week. He isn't Walker, though.

"Me versus Delanie, they lose a lot of speed," Peelle confessed. "I mean, Delanie can flat-out run. I used to be able to run a little bit, and as I got up in years I can't. You put those two out there, Vernon and Delanie, and you got a lot of speed at the position. Delanie does a lot more than people realize."

Put it this way: The 49ers have been missing Walker nearly as much as he has been missing hamburgers.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com