Over the course of the offseason, as Earl Thomas III recovers from surgery to repair a torn labrum, we’ll be counting down the top five plays made by No. 29 from this past season.
At No. 3 on the list is a series of plays made by Earl in the Seattle Seahawks’ divisional round matchup with the Carolina Panthers—starting with a tone-setting strip.
ET Top 5—No. 3: Playoff Punchout
After the Seattle Seahawks clinched the top seed in the NFC and a first round bye with a thrilling Week 17 win, by the time their first postseason game came around two weeks later in the Divisional Round, Earl Thomas was amped.
From the time he stepped on to CenturyLink Field for a Saturday night showdown with Carolina, ET III made sure the Panthers knew they were in for a rough day in the Emerald City.
On the first play from scrimmage, No. 29 put his hat on Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart, and stripped the ball from his hands. The Panthers caught a break, and the ball tumbled safely out of bounds, allowing them to keep possession. However, while the football gods gave Carolina a break, ET III, the Legion of Boom and the rest of the Hawks weren’t giving any free passes for the rest of the night.
“We played together,” Earl exclaimed after the win. “You talk about fire, it’s like it’s burning in us. We love this. We love what we do. We love playing here at CenturyLink.”
In addition to that strip, Earl finished with two big pass deflections, and he tied fellow L.O.B. safety Kam Chancellor for a game-high 11 tackles.
One of those stops came on the very next play after the strip, when ET stonewalled Stewart just before the first-down maker. Then on the next possession, Earl nearly came through with a diving interception, but he couldn’t quite haul it in.
But after sitting on the turf for just a moment lamenting his miss, No. 29 fixed his focus forward.
As the game went on, he continued to make his presence known, bringing down ball carriers all over the field, throughout the night.
“Every time we step out here, tackling is very vital,” ET said. “We’re a great tackling group, we understand keeping our leverage, funneling the ball between each other, and we just have fun and fly around. Effort. You can’t coach effort.”
That effort was vital late in the first half. The Hawks were clinging to a 14-7 lead and Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was looking for his star rookie receiver, Kelvin Benjamin. The budding 6’5″ 243-pound rookie had a huge night, hauling in two touchdown receptions, but in a crucial moment, No. 29 stopped him from having an even bigger game in Seattle.
Newton was hit as he released, but the ball was still heading right toward Benjamin in the end zone. Earl came roaring in from his spot up top in Area 29, leapt in front of the big-framed rookie and pulled in the Newton pass as he smashed into the ground.
It looked like a phenomenal interception at first—until it went to a review. As replay showed, Earl briefly bobbled the ball as he came crashing down to earth, and the nose of the ball hit the grass as he rolled on his side. The fantastic pick was overturned, but the play still prevented a touchdown and helped the Hawks take a 14-10 lead into the break.
After a scoreless third, the Seahawks came up with 10 quick points in the final frame, forcing the Panthers into desperation mode. Newton and Co. attacked the L.O.B. with all they had, again sending ET into action.
He made three key tackles on Carolina’s ensuing drive, and eventually the Boomers won out. The Panthers had marched all the way to the Seattle red zone, when Chancellor stepped in.
The Seahawks strong safety goes into every play with the knowledge that Earl had his back, so he can always be as aggressive as he needs to be from his enforcer position. That came in handy when Newton looked to complete a short pass to the right side of the field to keep the Carolina drive moving toward the red zone. Chancellor stepped in front of the pass and snared it on the 10-yard line, leaving only 90 yards of green between Kam and paydirt, which he covered for the game-sealing touchdown.
Richard Sherman also pulled in an interception on the night, and the Seattle D, led by the L.O.B., was just full of big-time plays, forcing three turnovers. With a little luck for Earl, that number would’ve been higher.
But there’s no question, Earl’s early play helped set the tone in a major way as the Hawks defeated the Panthers to move on to the NFC Championship Game.