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49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo facing 1st playoff start

SANTA CLARA - Jimmy Garoppolo is a winner. He just wins.

That narrative could end if he loses to the Minnesota Vikings this Saturday.

Garoppolo’s career win-loss record is 21-5. Phenomenal. But he never has started a playoff game - he merely has watched playoff games from the sideline when he was Tom Brady’s backup on the New England Patriots. If Garoppolo wins his first playoff game, he will be a hero. If he loses, that loss could overshadow his regular-season resume.

Lots at stake for the young, ascending quarterback.

“That stuff is so funny to me,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said Tuesday. “He could play great, and we might come up short and people would say he can’t win a playoff game. I felt like last week (against the Seahawks) was a playoff game. That was pretty intense. So I think he has shown that he can handle himself with poise. Hopefully he does it this Saturday, which will be his first playoff game.”

Playoff game No. 1 is a big deal for most quarterbacks. Last weekend, three quarterbacks made their playoff ?debuts: Josh Allen, Ryan Tannehill and Carson Wentz. And their composite quarterback rating was just 64.8. Only Tannehill won and advanced to the next round, but he threw for only 72 yards. Not much to brag about.

Will Garoppolo struggle like those three, or will he outshine them?

“We’ve had a couple of late games this season that felt like playoff games, starting with Seattle, Baltimore and New Orleans,” Garoppolo said. “I think it’s going to help us going forward.”

Garoppolo beat the Saints, lost to the Ravens and split two games with the Seahawks. Meaning he was 2-2 in the 49ers’ big games. So, in terms of big games, he’s good, not great. But his quarterback rating in those games was 102 - very good, verging on outstanding. And his rating for the entire season was 102 as well. So he was consistent.

“He’s not going to try to reinvent anything or do anything different,” Joe Staley said. “He’s going to be the same person and quarterback. The thing I respect the most about him is his preparation and work ethic. You see a lot of talented guys come into the NFL throughout the years, but what guys really respect is the preparation and work ethic he puts in. He’s going to try to be the most prepared person he can be, and he’s going to practice the same way every day.”

High praise from a great left tackle who played with Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick - two quarterbacks who won their first playoff starts. Smith beat the Saints in 2012, and Kaepernick beat the Packers in 2013.

Garoppolo will play the Vikings, who beat him 24-16 in Minnesota in 2018, and just beat the Saints in New Orleans. The Vikings are tough and confident.

“The Vikings have a lot of guys who have played in the system and played together for a long time,” Staley said, “so they know exactly where each other are going to be. It’s really hard to get them out of position. They have really talented players up front. All across the board, they play well together.”

When the Vikings faced the 49ers last season, Garoppolo completed 15 of 33 passes, threw three interceptions and his quarterback rating was just 45.1. It was the worst start of his career.

The Viking have excellent linebackers and safeties who defend the middle of the field - exactly where Garoppolo likes to pass the ball. They forced Garoppolo to make long throws toward the sideline, and he struggled.

But back then he didn’t Emmanuel Sanders.

The 49ers’ wide receivers were Marquise Goodwin and Pierre Garcon, two middling starters. Sanders is excellent, and he’s a Super Bowl champion. He knows what to expect in the playoffs.

“Don’t do too much,” Sanders said. “A lot of people, when they get in the playoffs, they think they have to do more, but you’re in the playoffs. You’ve been winning games. Just remain who you are. I don’t have to talk to Jimmy about that. He knows. He knows.”

He’d better know.

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