Garop­polo ready for 1st play­off start

Antelope Valley Press - - SPORTS - By JOSH DUBOW

SANTA CLARA — 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.

As­so­ci­ated Press

HAPPY — San Fran­cisco 49ers quar­ter­back Jimmy Garop­polo smiles dur­ing a news con­fer­ence af­ter a game against the Seat­tle Sea­hawks on Dec. 29 in Seat­tle. The 49ers won 26-21.

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