The Seattle Seahawks began the second half of the season Sunday much like they spent the first half, when opponents motivated to face the defending NFL champions gave them little wiggle room.
This time it was the New York Giants, all but officially eliminated from the playoffs, who refused to roll over at CenturyLink Field. Driving for the go-ahead score of a game tied 17-17, the Giants decided to challenge Hawks' cornerback Richard Sherman on a third-quarter possession that brought to mind the lyrics of Bob Dylan:
When you've got nothing, you've got nothing left to lose.
Besides, the idea of trying to sneak sleek, rookie receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. past Sherman wasn't patently crazy. Beckham already had beaten Sherman for a 44-yard gain in the first quarter, and while the All-Pro corner has been known to bristle at the thought he's anything but invulnerable, Sherman understood the Giants' strategy to the point he was empathetic.
"Beckham is a great player," he said. "You've got to take risks and shots in a game like this, and that was their shot."
It never had a chance. Sherman boxed out Beckham on a fade route in the corner of the end zone, and Eli Manning's pass was deflected into the hands of Seahawks safety Earl Thomas.
Thomas, who had yet to intercept a pass in 2014, caught the ball five yards beyond the goal line, turned around, and ran with the abandon of a hungry ball-hawk who had just picked off his first pass. By the time Thomas finally was brought down at the Seattle 42-yard line, the momentum of the seesaw game had shifted.
The tipped-ball pick didn't precisely mirror the most significant play in Hawks' history — Sherman's end-zone tip of a pass intended for San Francisco's Michael Crabtree, which linebacker Malcolm Smith grabbed to seal the 2013 NFC championship — but there were some obvious parallels.
Same corner of the south end zone. Same kind of route run by a big-play receiver. And in the middle of it all, Sherman, too compelled by the moment to consider Beckham an updated version of Crabtree.
"I was just excited for Earl," Sherman said. "It was a fantastic turnover and I thought we had a chance to score it. It was a big play in the ball game. I didn't have time to think about flashbacks."
If Thomas had a flashback, it was from last season's victory over the Giants at MetLife Stadium, where he pulled in a ball tipped by Sherman in, yep, the right corner of the end zone.
"It's crazy that it happened against the Giants again with the same two people," said Thomas. "That's how strong me and Sherm have got our connections off the field.
"Sherm went to Stanford, man. It's always a game within a game for that guy. That's what you love. That's what you respect: smart, situational football players that have a certain kind of grunt and grit about them — a dogged mentality. They won't give up, no matter what."
As for the rest of the play, Thomas never thought twice about returning the ball. For that matter, he never even thought once.
He just did it, relying on sheer sense.
"There's no communication there," said Sherman. "It's just practice. You practice all the time with guys, you know their strengths and their weaknesses. You know if you throw a fade ball at me and if you know I am setting up, there's going to be a chance for somebody to get it if I don't. That's just from playing with one another."
Why not settle for a touchback?
“There was no reason to," said Sherman. "There was a lot of green grass and it ended up being a 40-plus yard return. A play like that, all the receivers are in the end zone and it's mostly linemen downfield. There's a chance for a huge play."
The Giants' reaction to the turnover was eloquent with body English. Quarterback Eli Manning put his hands on his helmet in a gesture that screamed, "Oh, no!" Coach Tom Coughlin, meanwhile, slammed his play sheets on the ground, as if he knew what the interception had wrought.
The Seahawks went on to score three fourth-quarter touchdowns with a ground attack relentless enough to qualify as historic.
And yet it was an Earl Thomas run on an interception return that proved to be the turning point of the 38-17 victory.
Asked if he considered taking a knee in the end zone, Thomas shook his head.
"I'm never gonna take a knee," he said. "Any time I catch the ball, and I don't care if it it's just in practice, I'm gonna try to make something happen."