The Atlanta Falcons honored one of their greatest receivers at halftime.
Then a guy few people have ever heard of snatched away the spotlight.
Olamide Zaccheaus hauled in the longest touchdown pass of Matt Ryan’s career, a 93-yarder that propelled the Atlanta Falcons to another dominating win over the Carolina Panthers, 40-20 on Sunday.
It was the first catch of the undrafted rookie’s career — and came not long after the Falcons inducted Roddy White into their ring of honor during a halftime ceremony.
Before Sunday, White had been on the receiving end of Ryan’s longest scoring play, a 90-yarder against San Francisco in 2009.
“I told O.Z. that he stole some of Roddy’s thunder,” Ryan joked. “I’m so happy for O.Z. He’s a guy who’s worked extremely hard. He stepped up when his number was called. He knew his assignment and he broke a tackle, which was impressive.”
The game turned at the end of the first half and beginning of the second.
The Panthers made it 10-10 with just over a minute to go before halftime, but the Falcons (4-9) quickly drove into position for Younghoe Koo’s 35-yard field goal on the final play.
After Carolina’s Kyle Allen fumbled the ball away on a blind-side hit by Vic Beasley to start the third period, the Falcons replied with a 46-yard drive capped by Devonta’ Freeman’s 13-yard touchdown run that made it 20-10.
Then it was Ryan delivering the pass from his own end zone that finished off the Panthers.
The 5-foot-8 Zaccheaus beat Donte Jackson, hauled in the throw near the midfield logo, shook off Jackson’s desperate grab and breezed to the end zone, with Jackson sprawled out on the turf behind him and no other Carolina player around.
“We were backed up,” Zaccheaus said. ”I just had a one-on-one that I had to win. I just had to find ball and make a play for the team.”
The Panthers (5-8) were officially eliminated from playoff contention with their fifth straight loss, which ruined the debut of interim coach Perry Fewell. He took over at the beginning of the week after longtime coach Ron Rivera was fired.
“I don’t think there’s one person that’s going to fix all this,” running back Christian McCaffrey said. “It’s a collective effort and once again we’ve just got to do a better job of executing and stop making it complicated on ourselves.”
Atlanta snapped a two-game losing streak and swept the season series with their I-85 rival. The Falcons won the first meeting 29-3 at Charlotte on Nov. 17.
Fewell and the Panthers endured a thoroughly miserable game. Allen was picked off twice in addition to coughing up the fumble. Carolina fumbled another one away on a kickoff return, the ball deflecting into the arms of Koo, setting off a wild celebration as the kicker bounced toward the sideline.
Coach Fewell: Kyle Allen gives us the best opportunity to win. pic.twitter.com/62N4Bt7h9Z— Carolina Blitz (@KeepBlitzin) December 8, 2019
It was the highlight of the day for Koo, whose four field goals also included a 50-yarder that ricocheted off an upright.
Ryan finished 20 of 34 for 313 yards, also throwing a 15-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley late in the second quarter as the Falcons piled up a season high for points.
Matty Ice became the 10th quarterback in NFL history to reach 50,000 yards. He’s now at 50,279 and has his sights on John Elway, the NFL’s ninth-leading passer with 51,475 yards.
Allen connected with Ian Thomas on a 1-yard scoring pass and tacked on a meaningless touchdown in the closing minutes with a 1-yard dive.
Jackson, who was beaten on the long touchdown play, blamed the coaches for calling an all-out blitz that left the cornerbacks on their own.
“We sent everybody,” he griped. “Zero coverage. No help. Backed up. With a quarterback like that? I don’t care if you’re Champ Bailey or any of those cornerbacks on the 100 (greatest players in NFL history) list, that’s a play that’s hard to make for any guy. Especially with a quarterback like Matt Ryan.”
Jackson also criticized the coverage on Ridley’s TD catch.
“Two horrible calls,” Jackson said. “Two horrible calls that we didn’t call in those situations all week at practice.”
Donte Jackson talks about coverage on that 93-yd touchdown and the Calvin Ridley touchdown play. pic.twitter.com/z0s1pdFAx7— Sheena Quick (@Sheena_Marie3) December 8, 2019
Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant added another ailment to his injury plagued year.
Trufant went out in the first half with a forearm injury and didn’t return. He already missed four games this season with a toe injury.
Ridley also left the game with abdominal pain, while the Panthers lost backup linebacker Marquis Haynes with a knee injury.
Carolina: Return home next Sunday to face the Seattle Seahawks in the penultimate home game of the season.
Atlanta: Head west Sunday to meet the San Francisco 49ers, who are coached by former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.