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Niners TE George Kittle returns to practice, hopes to face Packers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers welcomed perhaps their best player back to practice on Thursday, a sign that he could also be available for a huge Sunday night matchup against the Green Bay Packers.

Niners tight end George Kittle, who has missed the past two games with knee and ankle problems, participated in his first practice since suffering the injuries in an Oct. 31 win against the Arizona Cardinals.

"It went really well," Kittle said. "It was definitely a step in the right direction. It was really fun being back out there with the guys. I definitely don't miss sitting in the training room all day, so definitely a good step in the right direction and the goal is definitely still Green Bay."

On the official participation report, Kittle was listed as limited and he wore a blue no-contact jersey during the portion of practice open to the media. Any participation at all was still a good sign for the 2018 Pro Bowler, as the Niners prepare to play a Packers team that is nipping at their heels for the top spot in the NFC playoff picture.

San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said Wednesday that Kittle was doing better than last week but indicated he'd likely be a game-time decision. Shanahan also noted that the Niners-Packers game being flexed to Sunday night would buy Kittle some extra time to rest and heal.

Asked directly if he was going to play against Green Bay, Kittle said that decision is in the hands of the doctors and Shanahan. But during his six-plus-minute session with the media, Kittle sounded like a player who planned on playing, especially as the Niners enter a three-game gantlet that will see them play the Packers, Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints in consecutive weeks.

"This is what you practice for, this is what you put all the hard work in OTAs and the offseason, summer, to be in big-time games," Kittle said. "We're looking forward to it. This is a team -- I think last year we had big-time games taken away from us, Sunday night football games. Just the fact we can get that opportunity again is really fun. I think I've yet to play in a Sunday night game in my career, so I'm really looking forward to that. It's just going to be an absolute blast."

Before Kittle can return, he will have to make it through another day of practice without any issues, but he's encouraged by what he's been able to do recently.

Kittle initially suffered the knee injury early in a road victory against the Cardinals when edge rusher Chandler Jones inadvertently hit Kittle on the knee with his helmet. Kittle played through the pain that day. On Thursday, he said staying in did not add any additional time to his absence.

"They said, 'Hey you wanna play?'" Kittle said. "And I said 'Yeah, I'm going to do everything I can to finish the game' and I think I got an extra three quarters out of it. I don't think it had any impact. I don't think it affected my injury any further."

In addition to Kittle, the 49ers also have a handful of key players who fall into the potential game-time decision umbrella. Receivers Deebo Samuel (shoulder) and Emmanuel Sanders (ribs) did not practice Wednesday but, like Kittle, were able to participate on a limited basis Thursday.

Running back Matt Breida (ankle) and defensive end Dee Ford (hamstring) were all seen doing some rehab work on the side, though neither of them participated in practice. Left tackle Joe Staley (finger) and kicker Robbie Gould (quad) also did not participate.