Earl Thomas called it one of the best plays he’s made in his illustrious career.
Rob Gronkowski said it may be the hardest hit he’s taken in a game.
And its aftermath was still reverberating on Monday, a day after the Seahawks’ three-time All-Pro free safety leveled the Patriots’ hulking, three-time All-Pro tight end with a shoulder hit to his chest in the first half of Seattle’s 31-24 victory at New England.
NFL Network reported Gronkowski got a punctured lung from Thomas’ legal hit. It forced Gronkowski onto the sidelines briefly injured Sunday night, before he returned.
“Yeah, that was a big hit, for sure,” Gronkowski said after he finished with three catches on six targets.
The last one, Tom Brady’s overthrow of him with 11 seconds left, was as the tight end and Seahawk Kam Chancellor collided in the end zone on fourth down from the Seattle 1.
“Probably one of the hardest I’ve got hit in my career, for sure. By a good player. A good, fast player who’s like a missile.”
Yes, even the most violent play of the thrilling, nationally televised showcase was an example of the mutual respect the Seahawks and Patriots showed each other while playing one of the league’s best games this season.
They showed why they are two of the NFL’s best teams during it, then how much they liked the other’s play after it.
“It was a good, clean hit,” Gronkowski said of Thomas’ blow. “I have no problem with it. He hit me fair and square. It’s football. You’re going to get laid out eventually.”
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll on Monday praised Thomas’ slam as textbook — the “new way” kids should learn to play hard football legally and relatively safely.
“That was as perfectly legal and safe as you can make it. That’s the way the game should be played, right there,” Carroll said. “That’s what we refer to as a strike zone hit (below the head and neck), and you saw Earl hit, leading with the shoulder, and protect both himself and Gronk from getting hit in the head. And that is absolutely the way that we teach it. That was as perfect a play on a seam route you can play.
“Unfortunately Gronk got rocked little bit, but he bounced back and came back on it, but it wasn’t because he got hit in the head. Neither one of the players got hit in the head. Still, the jolt was significant. But if we could show kids how we want them to hit and play this game, and college kids, that’s how you do it.
“It’s the new way, it’s the new way to make hits. Strike zone contact, and you can hit guys as hard as you can and they can be very safe in that.”
The play, the reaction to it, other similarly competitive plays and the postgame talk in both locker rooms — including from Patriots coach Bill Belichick — showed how the NFL’s two most consistently excellent franchises over the last five years respect each other.
“I thought there was a lot of illustration. You saw some of those guys picking each other up and stuff, I’m just going to assume the way Coach Belichick talked to his team was the way we talked to our team,” Carroll said. “We had a lot of respect for this club and the players who played and the coaches. I think the players demonstrated that throughout.
“This was a very clean game and a very upfront game. You saw illustrations of recognition of guys on the other teams a number of times. That’s a beautiful thing. It was nice to see that and it was a really hard fought game.”
Late Sunday Carroll called Brady “one of the best quarterbacks that’s ever played.” He called Belichick “the best coach that’s ever coached.”
Carroll said the Seahawks can look back and say “that’s one hell of a football team that (we) played.”
Multiple times in his postgame comments late Sunday night Belichick mentioned how much he respected how tough and demanding the Seahawks are.
“That’s the first thing I said: Give Seattle credit,” Belichick said. “They have a good football team. They are well-coached. They’re very well-coached. They’re tough. They compete on every play…
“It can’t get more competitive than it was out there (Sunday night).”
And no sour grapes from the Patriots’ coach on the Thomas hit that apparently has left Gronkowski with a punctured lung. Not on the no-call when Chancellor and Gronkowski banged on the final player.
Nothing but respect — and perhaps a feeling these occasional-yet-brilliant rivals may meet again soon, say, in Super Bowl 51 in Houston in February.
“It was a really competitive game,” Belichick said. “I thought the game was well-officiated. They did a good job of letting the players play.”
RAWLS EXPECTED TO PLAY SUNDAY
Carroll said he expects lead running back Thomas Rawls to play on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. He’s been out since he cracked his fibula Sept. 18 at Los Angeles.
“I’m really excited about this one because Thomas is practicing to play this week,” Carroll said. “He got himself ready to play this week mentally and he’s ready to go at it.”
So what becomes of C.J. Prosise? The rookie third-round pick made his first start instead of Christine Michael and seized the opportunity. Prosise had 66 yards on 17 carries, exactly double what the entire Seahawks offense ran for against Buffalo six days earlier. Prosise had 24 touches compared to just five for Michael, who had been starting for the month and a half Rawls has been out.
“We’ll figure it out,” Carroll said of Rawls, Prosise and Michael. “It’s not a big deal.”
Carroll said Rawls “looked great this past week” running in practices, “but you know how we do this. We’ll be careful, as we enter into it, to make sure that he’s ready and can handle it. We’ll know much more Friday or Saturday.”
BENNETT: PERHAPS NOV. 27 AT BUCS?
Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett missed his third consecutive game at New England. He had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee Nov. 2.
Carroll made it sound as if the earliest Bennett might return is Nov. 27 at Tampa Bay, the team for which Bennett played from 2009 until he signed with Seattle following the 2012 season.
Carroll said second TE Luke Willson (knee surgery last month) and LT Bradley Sowell (sprained knee) were close to playing at New England and have a chance to play against the Eagles this week.
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle