SANTA CLARA, CA – Jimmy Garoppolo's postseason experience consists of a couple of garbage-time handoffs for New England during the 2014 AFC championship game that is remembered far more for the controversy surrounding deflated footballs.
Garoppolo will carry a much bigger burden when he makes his first career playoff start for San Francisco as the 49ers host the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday in their first playoff game since the 2013 season.
"I've seen the atmosphere in the building ramp up, the atmosphere of the coaches and players and everyone," Garoppolo said Tuesday about the lessons he learned during his time with the Patriots. "Just a lot more energy in the building for sure."
Garoppolo's first full season as a starting quarterback in the NFL was a success as he helped lead the Niners (13-3) to the playoffs for the first time in six years, earning the top seed in the NFC.
He had highs and lows, with Garoppolo's 18 turnovers being the most by any playoff quarterback but his four fourth-quarter comebacks tying for the most in the NFL.
In all, the good outshone the bad moments. Garoppolo posted three games with four TD passes and ranked third in the league with 8.4 yards per attempt.
That performance helped justify the commitment San Francisco made to him following his 5-0 finish to the 2017 season after a midseason trade from New England.
The Niners rewarded Garoppolo with a five-year, $137.5 million contract in the hopes that he would lead the team back to the playoffs and then shine on the big stage.
"He's been the same guy since he's been here since Day 1," tackle Joe Staley said. "He's going to try to be the most prepared person he can be. He'll practice the same way every day. He's not going to try to reinvent anything. He's not going to try to do anything different. He's going to be the same person for this franchise that he's been."
The first season of the deal was hardly a success. He threw three interceptions in a season-opening loss to the Vikings and then suffered a season-ending knee injury in a Week 3 loss at Kansas City.
That injury contributed to coach Kyle Shanahan's reluctance to put too much on Garoppolo's plate early this season, relying more on a dominant defense and running game.
But as the defense regressed in the second half of the season and opposing defenses focused on shutting down the running game, Garoppolo showed the ability to carry a much heavier load.
He had a pair of four-touchdown games against Arizona, had a mostly flawless prime-time performance against Green Bay, led the fourth-quarter comeback in a 48-46 win at New Orleans and beat the Seahawks on the road in the season finale to clinch the division and top seed.
Now the Niners are counting on Garoppolo to deliver in the postseason.
"I thought last week was a playoff game," Shanahan said. "That was pretty intense when we played Seattle. He's shown he can handle himself with poise. ... I think Jimmy has played some pretty big games. Anyone who's around him in those games and talks to him, it's not much different in those games than it is in a preseason game."
Garoppolo has more playoff experience than most of his teammates, having served as Tom Brady's backup in New England in Super Bowl-winning runs in the 2014 and '16 seasons.
But the only time he made it on the field came in the closing minutes of the 2014 AFC championship game against Indianapolis, when he handed off twice in a 45-7 win. Brady was later suspended four games when the NFL said he directed equipment staffers to deflate footballs to make them easier to grip.
Receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who has played in Super Bowls for Pittsburgh and Denver, said the key in the playoffs is sticking to the same formula that got teams there.
"I don't have to talk to Jimmy about that," Sanders said. "How many Super Bowl rings does that guy got? He knows. He knows what it takes to go all the way and win it all. He's seen the preparation of one of the great quarterbacks of all-time. At the end of the day he understands the process."
NOTES: LB Kwon Alexander practiced again and is on target to be activated from IR after tearing his pectoral muscle on Oct. 31. ... DE Dee Ford (hamstring, quadriceps), S Jaquiski Tartt (ribs) and G Mike Person (neck) also practiced and should be able to return this week.
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