It was easy to focus on the negatives with Ambry Thomas early on this season, forgetting that the 49ers rookie cornerback didn't play football in 2020, opting out of his final season at Michigan due to COVID-19.
The young cornerback was inactive for three of the 49ers' first five games but slowly found his footing in the NFL. Thomas was inserted into a starting role in Week 14, and came up with one of the biggest defensive plays of the 49ers' season Sunday when he intercepted Matthew Stafford in overtime to seal San Francisco's 27-24 overtime win over the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium.
Thomas' interception not only finished off a come-from-behind win, but it also clinched a playoff spot for the 49ers and was the final step in Thomas' journey to get back into football mode. That journey started when Thomas arrived in Santa Clara and reached its turning point when general manager John Lynch, a Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back, let him know he was on the right path.
"I can't remember which week it was," Thomas said Sunday when asked when he felt he was turning the corner. "I had two picks in back-to-back periods in practice, and John Lynch kind of looked at me and nodded like, 'Yeah, keep on going.' So I'm like, yeah, I'm here."
For Thomas, he never doubted his ability to get back into "football mode" and become the player he has been at the end of the season for the 49ers. One who played a critical role in ensuring their season didn't end Sunday in Los Angeles.
"I knew for sure," Thomas said. "I just knew I had to get back in football mode. A lot of people didn't know that I was out of football for a year and once I mentally got back into football mode, I knew it was going to be over because I knew what kind of person I am.
"I knew it was going to be time to go. I've arrived type of moment."
That moment came Sunday when the 49ers needed it most.
The 49ers fell into a 17-0 hole Sunday against a Rams team dying to end their season. Needing a win or a New Orleans Saints loss to clinch a playoff berth, the 49ers fought back in the second half, with Jimmy Garoppolo hitting Jauan Jennings for a 14-yard touchdown with 26 seconds left to tie the game and send it to overtime.
After Robbie Gould opened the overtime period with a field goal, the 49ers' defense needed a stop to ensure their season would continue for at least another week.
Looking for a big play to break the 49ers' back, Stafford took aim at Thomas, who was matched up with Odell Beckham Jr. on the outside. Beckham got a good release and had a step on Thomas, but Stafford underthrew the ball slightly, which allowed Thomas to leap to make a game-ending and season-extending interception.
"I just played my responsibilities," Thomas said of the interception. "I just stayed on top of Odell, he was the only threat I had to my side, so just had to do my job, and I saw the ball and go get the ball.
"I'm just really happy we in the dance now," Thomas continued. "That's all that matters."