49ers rookie Embry Thomas emerges as unlikely hero in clutch

All eyes were on Embry Thomas as he back-peddled, flipped his hips and stepped onto the edge of the Rams with Odell Beckham Jr.

Thomas had his eye on football.

“I just had to do my job: see the ball, get the ball,” Thomas, a once-forgotten rookie, said after a 49-playoff-clinching 27-24 overtime win over the hosts Los Angeles Rams.

As Thomas worked his coverage to perfection, he caught the attention of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as his eyes were fixed on a locker room television. Once Thomas leapt for the 49ers’ biggest interception, Tom Brady held his head over his head with incredible joy (see: the 2001 Super Bowl) and high-fives a Bux teammate.

This secured the NFC’s No. 2 seed for the Bucks, No. 4 seed for the Rams, and a wild-card berth to the 49ers, where, as the No. 6 seed, they would visit the No. 3 Dallas Cowboys. Sunday.

“It was wonderful how quickly Embry read the ball into the air,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said on a media call on Monday. “He was able to react much faster to it than the receiver and to end the game.”

What made Thomas an unlikely hero—after several offensive heroes like Jimmy Garoppolo, Deebo Samuel, and John Jennings—was the humble, elusive start of his NFL career.

Thomas played only 20 snaps in victories over the Lions (Week 1) and Jaguars (Week 11) before joining the starting lineup, where he made Sunday’s fifth start – and leading to the first career interception.

“I think his greatest asset in his moment of truth is chivalry,” general manager John Lynch said on April 30 when Thomas was drafted into the third round.

“When that ball is in the air, he has the ability to find it, which isn’t as easy to find as you might think for a DB,” said Lynch, a Pro Football Hall of Fame safety. “There’s a reason they’re playing defense, as they say. Embry has great skill when the ball is in the air.”

With 1:52 remaining in overtime, Thomas barely landed on the 20-yard line with Matthew Stafford’s final lap, 49 yards in the air.

“Ambry was perfect,” Shanahan said. “He was on top the whole time. Stafford looked like he threw it to give Odell a chance.”

Inside the final minute of the third quarter, fellow starting cornerback Emmanuel Moseley stopped Stafford, who was also a 49-yard bomber. Shanahan didn’t understand things when he called both interceptions “huge,” and praised Moseley’s ability to catch the ball and track it despite being out with a high-ankle sprain last month.