Emmanuel Sanders, the savvy veteran, showed up. So did Deebo Samuel, the dynamic rookie, and Kendrick Bourne, the fun-loving dancer in this eclectic group of wide receivers.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo found them all in a spread-the-wealth first half Saturday. That helped propel the 49ers toward a methodical 27-10 victory over Minnesota in an NFC divisional playoff game at Levi’s Stadium.
Yes, the defense snuffed the life out of the Vikings. Absolutely, running back Tevin Coleman churned out 105 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. But if you have any sense of 49ers postseason history, you know their wide receivers often play a prominent role.
Consider the indelible snapshots, from Dwight Clark and “The Catch” to John Taylor in the Super Bowl. Or Jerry Rice being Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens making his memorably clutch, goal-line catch against Green Bay in 1999.
This year’s group of receivers didn’t inspire much confidence when the season started, beyond tight end George Kittle. But Samuel increasingly became a factor, Sanders arrived in an October trade and Bourne also made an impact.
Garoppolo needed his wideouts, in part, because the Vikings contain tight ends more effectively than any defense in the NFL. They allowed a league-low passer rating of 60.7 on throws intended for tight ends during the regular season.
Sure enough, Kittle was unusually quiet Saturday — one catch early, two afterthought catches late, only 16 yards in all and none of his customary run-after-the-catch mayhem.
The 49ers adapted, leaning on their wide receivers in the first half and turning to running backs Coleman and Raheem Mostert (58 yards) in the second half.
“If they’re going to double team George, it always opens up everybody else,” Bourne said. “Whoever they double, we’ve got so many weapons, you can’t really do that. If you do, we have an answer.
“That’s the thing about” head coach Kyle Shanahan, “he has answers for everything. He always puts us in position to be successful.”
That became evident on Saturday’s opening drive. The 49ers marched 61 yards on eight plays, as Garoppolo completed five passes to four receivers: Samuel, Sanders, Sanders, Kittle and finally Bourne for a 3-yard touchdown.
The three wide receivers combined for seven catches for 94 yards in the first half, before Shanahan leaned on Coleman and the running game.
It was no surprise to see Sanders come through in the postseason. He was Peyton Manning’s reliable target during Denver’s run to the championship after the 2015 season, culminating with a Super Bowl win in Santa Clara.
Still, Samuel and Bourne counted as playoff neophytes before Saturday’s game.
“I knew they were going to handle it,” Sanders said. “New Orleans and all those games were playoff-type games, a lot of pressure trying to get the No. 1 seed, and they performed.
“So I had nothing but confidence they were going to perform again. These guys are poised, man, and they have confidence.”
Bourne did drop two passes later in the game, a reminder of his erratic tendencies. He and Samuel still exude the bravado of youth, as if they fully expect to prosper on the biggest stages.
That’s what the 49ers will need when they host Green Bay or Seattle in the NFC Championship Game next Sunday. This offense stretches beyond Garoppolo and Kittle, as Saturday’s victory illustrated.
“We’ve shown this year we can do it in a variety of different ways,” offensive tackle Joe Staley said. “We’ve had to really air it out when the running game wasn’t working, and we’ve also had games like this where we’ve run the ball really well and controlled the clock.”
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