The San Francisco 49ers regular season finale concluded in a storybook ending with a win over the Los Angeles Rams in overtime, sending the team to their second playoff appearance in three years.
The clock was running down as the 49ers held a three-point lead in overtime. This is when Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford unleashed a deep throw for wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Just behind the star receiver was rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas, who with perfect timing while pursuing Beckham Jr., came down with the under thrown pass. His first-career interception sealed San Francisco's sixth victory over the Rams as they set their eyes on the postseason.
"I don't think you can draw it up any better than that," linebacker Fred Warner said. "Just like a storybook ending."
Thomas stepped up to the plate when the 49ers needed him the most. San Francisco's secondary was one of the team's biggest areas of concern heading into the regular season finale, as a large contingency of the unit missed the weeks-worth of practices due to being placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Week 18 was already predicted to pose a challenge to the 49ers defense as they were faced up against a Los Angeles team which boasts some of the strongest and highest achieving receivers in the entire league.
Not only was Thomas put to the test in Sunday's contest with the team's playoff chances on the line, but his performance has been scrutinized throughout his entire rookie season.
Before joining the 49ers as the team's third-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the cornerback didn't play football in all of 2020 due to a cancelled season at the University of Michigan due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first half of his rookie season, Thomas didn't see the field often and only played for 20 total snaps for nearly three-fourths of the season. However, the rookie was thrust into a larger role after a series of significant injuries over the season to players such as Jason Verrett and Emmanuel Moseley.
"It was pretty challenging just to be inactive all those games and still have to keep my mind on football and watch my guys play on Sundays and I'm not," Thomas said. "It just made me work harder every time we practiced. So, I'm grateful for that honestly because that brought me up."
The rookie's hard work and determination showed to be true, as the 49ers granted Thomas a starting role from Week 14 on, including the regular season finale, ahead of several veteran options. With the trust of his coaching staff, Thomas earned his biggest play of the year (and likely of his young career) on one of the most crucial moments of the 49ers season.
"Thomas has definitely made a believer out of me," Shanahan said. "I would not have believed he could have with how it started off. That sounds kind of harsh, but it's not. It's a huge compliment. It took him some time, but when he got his opportunity … he was ready and he competed."
The transformation in the rookie's rough start to becoming a reliable defensive back came into fruition after a shift of his mindset. Thomas stated that after a year away from the game, he needed to get back into "football mode." Once his mind was focused, his performance followed suit.
"We corners, we think the ball doesn't belong to us. But no – if you're there, the ball is yours," Thomas said. "I look back on all the stuff I got beat on, and I've always been there. I just needed that 'ball is mine' mindset, and that's starting to come along. The more reps I get, the better I get."
It was a lengthy journey for the cornerback to find his footing in the NFL, but it came at just the right time. Thomas and the 49ers now have their eyes set on the postseason, where they will face the Dallas Cowboys for Sunday’s Wild Card round.
"I'm just really happy we are in the dance now," Thomas said. "That's all that matters."