49ers’ rookie Ambry Thomas appeared to be an unlikely hero in the clutch

All eyes were on Ambry Thomas as he withdrew, turning his hips and keeping pace with Odell Beckham Jr. down the Rams’ sideline.

Thomas’ eyes were on football.

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

While Thomas worked on his coverage to perfection, he had the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ attention as their eyes fixed on a television in the locker room. When Thomas jumped after the 49ers’ biggest interception in years, Tom Brady put his hands on his head with incredible joy (see: 2001 Super Bowl) and high-fived a Bucs teammate.

It secured the NFC’s No. 2 seed to the Bucs, the No. 4 seed to the Rams and the 49ers’ wild-card spot, where they, as the No. 6 seed, will visit the No. 3 Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.

“It was amazing how quickly Ambry read the ball in the air,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said in a media call Monday. “He was able to react to it much faster than the receiver to get the choice and end the game.”

What made Thomas an unlikely hero – after a series of offensive heroes, namely Jimmy Garoppolo, Deebo Samuel and Jauan Jennings – was the humble, hidden beginning of his NFL career.

Thomas played only 20 snaps in victories over Lions (Week 1) and Jaguars (Week 11) before being drafted into the starting lineup, taking steps to Sunday’s fifth start – and first career interception.

“I think his greatest asset is balance in the moment of truth,” general manager John Lynch said on April 30 as he drafted Thomas in the third round.

“Once that ball is in the air, he has an ability to locate it, which is not as easy to find as you might think for DBs,” added Lynch, a Pro Football Hall of Fame Safety. “As they say, there’s a reason they play defense. Ambry has a good ability to be very balanced when the ball is in the air.”

With 1:52 left of overtime, Thomas barely landed in bounds on the 20-yard line with Matthew Stafford’s final lift, which hovered 49 yards in the air.

“Ambry was perfect,” Shanahan added. “He stayed on top all the time. Stafford looked like he just threw it up to give Odell a chance.

Within the final minute of the third quarter, second-starting cornerback Emmanuel Moseley also intercepted Stafford, also a 49-yard bomb. Shanahan did not underestimate things as he called both interceptions “huge” and he praised Moseley’s ability to catch the ball and track it despite being out the previous month with a high ankle sprain.

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