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Wyche: How Olamide Zaccheaus illustrates why Falcons are in playoff chase

Unselfish, physical play has been key to Falcons maximizing talent remaining in the hunt


Don't think that players, coaches, and staffers inside the Falcons building are taking this being-a-playoff-team thing lightly.

They believe, not in hyperbolic terms, but they realistically believe that, with the way that they are playing now, this roster of mutts with guts can make a postseason appearance nobody believed was possible in September (hand raised).

I spoke with plenty of people at all levels of the team this week. They're not wishfully thinking. They're also not looking at the schedule or conjuring up analytical reasons why they can slide into a wild-card spot.

The unselfishness with how they are playing, the maximization of talent – even if that is limited in some cases – and the outright physical nature they're now playing with, at the right time, is why the Falcons feel they can emerge as what would be one of the most unexpected outcomes of this season of the unexpected.

Case-in-point(s): Wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus had zero targets in Atlanta’s 29-21 victory Sunday, which elevated the Falcons' record to 6-7.

However, he had a hand in three of the biggest plays of that game. Check out the videos below for proof, and keep a close eye on No. 17. He was doing important, unhearalded work.

In the first quarter, as Cordarrelle Patterson scored on a five-yard TD run through a gaping hole on the left side of the offensive line, it was Zaccheaus who drove the cornerback into the end zone so he couldn't fill and possibly stop Patterson before he tied the game 7-all.

In the fourth quarter, with Atlanta at the Panthers' three-yard line, Zaccheaus, from the right slot, ran an inside slant route and took three defenders with him, opening a canyon in the right flat for tight end Hayden Hurst, who Matt Ryan found for the touchdown that made the score 26-14.

What really stood out, though, was with just more than two minutes remaining on third down after the Panthers had closed the score, Zaccheaus, from the left slot, cracked down on Carolina outside linebacker Hassan Reddick as he sank inside and tried to close on Ryan, who executed a play fake that briefly froze Reddick. Ryan then threw a short drag-route completion to tight end Kyle Pitts for a huge gain that sealed the win.

Zero targets. Three plays that sprang his teammates.

It's just one of the countless, selfless plays by Falcons players that has created an energy that they feel has led to a sense of togetherness and confidence that will convey.

Can it carry through the remaining schedule at the 49ers, Detroit at home, at Buffalo, then the Saints to close the season? If somehow Atlanta gets to the playoffs can they advance a round or two?

Ask yourself this: Did you think the Falcons of 2021 would even be mentioned – even as a longshot – in the same breath as "playoffs" entering Week 15?

There might be two players on this roster that garner serious Pro Bowl consideration: running back/wide receiver/happiest guy on the planet Cordarelle Patterson, and cornerback A.J. Terrell. Ryan is having a strong season but Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Dak Prescott and Kyler Murray likely will get more shine among quarterbacks in the NFC.

The team's supposed top wide receiver, Calvin Ridley, has only played in five games and hasn't been with the team for months because of personal reasons.

There hasn't been a dominant receiver or running back and the offensive line hasn't been consistent. However, head coach Arthur Smith likes with how the sum of these parts are playing, especially the nasty element, emerging just when it must.

Defensively, there's no dominant pass rusher, but as a unit, they're playing well enough – especially at linebacker with Foye Oluokun, Deion Jones, Mykal Walker, Dante Fowler and Stephen Means. Losing safety Erik Harris to a season-ending pec injury was untimely but it's time to see if Jaylinn Hawkins is ready for heavy responsibility, especially with the 49ers certainly scheming up matchups for him with tight end George Kittle.

Mutts with guts.

Let's also not discount how Smith and his staff have kept things together and found ways to compete. Smith won't win coach of the year, but even having the Falcons near .500 should get him some mention for the job he's done.

All of this fits into a bigger plan that's played out like the preseason hypothesis of developing a culture while staying relevant. What this does is get those players who will be back in 2022 a bottom floor of expectations that will set the level of accountability for the newcomers arriving to improve the talent.

Part of that accountability will be about selflessness, like Zaccheaus was against Carolina. While he may have been a relative afterthought in the passing game, he did his share to make himself thought about after a victory that has the Falcons in position to make everyone take notice.

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