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Earl Thomas may be key to Seahawks’ success against Broncos

Earl Thomas, Bobby Wagner
Seahawks safety Earl Thomas looks on during Seattle’s stunning loss to San Diego, 30-21, at Qualcomm Stadium. Seattle faces Denver on Sunday in a rematch of last year’s Super Bowl.
(Paul Buck / EPA)

While everyone else thinks of Sunday’s Denver-Seattle game as a Super Bowl rematch, Seahawks safety Earl Thomas considers it more of a personal reboot after last week’s 30-21 loss at San Diego.

“I think I definitely got my championship spirit back after that loss,” Thomas told reporters this week. “You know, my crave, my hunger, and my desire to be unstoppable.

“I guess it’s 2.0.”

Thomas suffered from cramps in the withering heat of San Diego, where the temperature reached 120 degrees at field level. Now, the Seahawks are back in the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field, where they have lost just one game in two-plus seasons.

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Broncos-Seahawks doesn’t lack for star power, with the predictable buzz surrounding Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson and cornerback Richard Sherman; Denver quarterback Peyton Manning and receiver Wes Welker, returning earlier than expected because his four-game drug suspension was cut in half.

But the key to the game could be Thomas, who has remarkable range in patrolling the back end of Seattle’s defense.

“Seattle is the Stones without Mick Jagger if [Thomas] isn’t there; it’s a totally different ballgame,” ESPN’s Jon Gruden said by phone this week. “He’s the guy that makes it go. They play three-deep all the time, single-safety man or single-safety zone. Earl Thomas is a sideline-to-sideline freak.”

Gruden said it will be a tall order for Denver to match what the Chargers did last weekend, especially when the game will be played in Seattle.

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“When I watch some of the catches that [San Diego tight end Antonio] Gates made, some of the protection that [quarterback Philip] Rivers had, if the Broncos can duplicate that, then they’ve got a chance to duplicate that,” Gruden said. “But they’re going to have to be on their game, man. They’re going to have to make some tight-window throws, have a great day in pass protection, and it’s hard to get a great team twice in a row.”

Super slide

The Seahawks loss in Week 2 follows a trend of Super Bowl winners coming out strong in the Kickoff Opener, then sliding backward in the immediate aftermath.

The 2005 New England Patriots beat Oakland in their debut, then lost four of their next seven.

The 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers beat Miami, then lost three in a row.

The 2009 Steelers beat Tennessee in overtime, then lost their next two.

The 2010 New Orleans Saints beat Minnesota, then went 3-3 in their next six games.

Notable exceptions were the 2007 Indianapolis Colts, who won their first seven games, and the 2011 Packers, who didn’t lose until Week 15.

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The New York Giants in 2012 and Baltimore Ravens last year became the first two defending champions to lose Kickoff Openers since 2004, when the NFL began its format of opening its next season on the home field of the previous Super Bowl winner. (The Ravens had to open on the road in 2013 because of a scheduling conflict with the Baltimore Orioles.)

From the heart

With all the NFL’s bad news lately, it’s important to remember the good stories.

New Orleans Coach Sean Payton recently bought 100 Devon Still jerseys sized small and medium, and donated them to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Still is the Bengals defensive tackle whose 4-year-old daughter, Leah, was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in June. The team had planned to cut him, but instead place him on the practice squad so his daughter would still be covered under NFL health insurance. The team is selling No. 75 Still jerseys on its website for $100 apiece, with the proceeds going to pediatric cancer research.

Bengals spokesman Jack Brennan said Saturday that about 8,000 of the jerseys have been sold and that demand continues to grow.

There’s a good chance Still will be activated for Sunday’s home game against Tennessee. When his daughter was diagnosed, Still planned to stop playing and devote all his time to being with her, but changed his mind when evaluating the insurance situation.

“I know when I first came back to football, it was hard for me to be the best father I can and most supportive father I can be for my daughter, while also trying to play football,” Still said by phone Friday. “Just the amount of support that I’m getting has allowed me to cope with what’s going on a lot more than I was able to before.”

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He said he was deeply moved by Payton’s gesture.

“It just shows that football is more than just competing on the field,” Still said. “I think when there’s a good cause to support that people come together, and we work together to try to help out as many people as we can. Sean Payton stepping up and doing what he did, it means a lot to me and a lot to the cancer community.”

Doubting Thomas

After years of back and forth, the NFL and NFLPA agreed this week to begin testing players for human growth hormone, ostensibly a major milestone in professional sports.

But Cleveland Browns tackle Joe Thomas has his doubts about how effective the testing will be.

“For me, the trepidation with the HGH testing has always been the accuracy, because they don’t really have a great test for it,” said Thomas, via the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “From what I understand, if you take HGH and get tested a day later, they can’t even test for it, so I don’t know how realistic it’s going to be that we’re really stamping out HGH if it’s a problem.”

The league is expected to begin random testing within the next two weeks.

“I’m sure people are going to pat themselves on the back, ‘Hey, we’ve got HGH testing,’” Thomas said. “Congress is going to feel good. ‘Hey, we got HGH out of the NFL.’ But I don’t really know if it’s going to be a thing like when they passed the steroid testing and they’re really able to test for these anabolics and they had a legitimate reason to say, ‘Yeah, we have gotten this out of our sport.’”

Leap of faith

Remember those Fantasy Files commercials that aired five years ago, the ones in which various NFL players performed rub-your-eyes-in-disbelief stunts (with the help of slick camera work) then urged fans to “Pick me”?

There was Maurice Jones-Drew, buried up to his neck on a beach, bursting Superman-style out of a hole 5 feet deep. Chris Simms effortlessly tossed football after football into a trash can 45 yards away, then flicked one into a can zipping past on a golf cart — all as if shot in one take. Kevin Boss bent backward “Matrix"-style to one-hand a pass screaming at his head from point-blank range.

An especially memorable one was running back Darren Sproles, now with Philadelphia, wearing shorts and a T-shirt in a park. He bends over to tie his shoes and says, “See those guys over there? They’re always trying to tackle me. They think they know all my moves.” He stands, runs toward two big guys, leaps ridiculously high, and lightly steps on their heads as he’s launched at least 10 feet in the air and past them.

What Sproles actually does on the football field, his blinding quickness and moves that freeze defenders in their tracks, has some people thinking there was no Hollywood magic to that commercial.

“I got some guys today who think he really did that,” said Larry Sproles, Darren’s father, who at 5 feet 5 is an inch shorter than his son and was a small-college running back. “Some guy was talking to me last week and asked me, ‘Man, could you do that?’ I was like, ‘Could I do what?’ He said, ‘Run over people’s heads.’

Laughing, Larry said: “I’m like, ‘Maaan, sit down. Let me talk to you.… That wasn’t real.’”

sam.farmer@latimes.com


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