FLOWERY BRANCH -- Can the Falcons, playing with $77.4 million in dead salary-cap space, really win the NFC South with a band of veterans on one-year deals, castoffs and a mix of seasoned and young talent?

Or have they reached first place in the division by winning with smoke and mirrors?

Will the house of cards come tumbling down if the Buccaneers and the Saints get it together from only one game back in the standings with nine games to play?

The Falcons (4-4) are set to face the Chargers (4-3) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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“Just understanding who we really are,” said linebacker Rashaan Evans, who’s the team’s leading tackler. “Knowing that, don’t try to change for anybody. Knowing that any team that we play, they have (the things) they do. We have what we do and just making sure that we stay true to that.”

The players have brought in.

“That’s what makes us successful,” Evans said. “We pride ourselves in physicality, and if we do that, anything else that we do after that, it’s going to be good.”

“Thursday Night Football” analysts Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andrew Whitworth and Richard Sherman believe the Falcons are legit and built to compete and take off in the future. After facing the pass-happy Chargers, the Falcons have a Thursday rematch with Carolina at 8:15 p.m. Nov. 10 in Charlotte.

“I love it,” Fitzpatrick said. “I love what they are doing. You kind of talk about the NFL being cyclical, and for them to kind of going back to leaning on the run game. Again, we always talk about taking what you have and not just plug-and-play, but using those players and their unique skill sets.”

Fitzpatrick, who played quarterback in the NFL from 2005-21 for nine teams, likes how the Falcons are using quarterback Marcus Mariota.

“He’s obviously still very athletic,” Fitzpatrick said. “He’s a good runner. He’s accurate with the ball, but (coach Arthur Smith) doesn’t want him to throw 40 passes a game. You can just see when you watch those games; they wear teams out.”

Fitzpatrick sees the Falcons’ unity and sense of purpose and is optimistic about their future.

“They have a lot of belief. Even though there are not a ton of big-name players on that football team, they’ve all brought in,” Fitzpatrick said. “They’ve got a younger roster now with some young talent. They are going to be a team to watch in years to come.”

The Falcons elected to move on from quarterback Matt Ryan over the offseason after 14 seasons. When they lost the Deshaun Watson derby to Cleveland, they turned to Mariota, who was a backup in Las Vegas the past two seasons.

“I’ve been really impressed so far with Arthur and his staff and the way that they are using Marcus,” Fitzpatrick said. “And (with) how effective they are running the football.”

The Falcons are averaging 158.1 yards rushing per game, which ranks fifth in the league.

Whitworth, who played at LSU, was in the NFL from 2006-21 with the Bengals (2006-16) and Rams (2017-21).

“The ability to teach that physical style of football is not for everybody,” Whitworth said. “There are some teams that are just not built roster-wise to do what Atlanta is doing, but this roster is.”

The Falcons have played in six one-score games, playing a tough and hard-nosed brand of football.

“They’ve got a good group, and they’ve got some guys that are getting after it,” Whitworth said. “They are young, and they are running the football well.”

The defense is not performing well statistically. It ranks last in the league in pass defense (306.9 yards per game), 31st in yards allowed (415.8), 30th in third-down conversions (47.06%) and 29th in points allowed (25.6).

The rushing attack covers up some of the flaws.

“It also takes the defense off the field more,” Whitworth said. “Gives them limited (opportunities) to where, hey, we can go out and get a three-and-out or make a stop. When you get the football back, they’re able to possess it, play run offense first, hit you with play-action, and then we have a quarterback who’s mobile. It shortens the game.”

The Falcons face only two teams who currently have winning records in the Chargers and the Ravens (5-3) on Dec. 24. They play the Commanders (4-4) on Nov. 27.

“We say every week about this team and who’s better, but the reality is you’re just trying to win a three-hour window,” Whitworth said. “What can I do to win in that three-hour window of time? I think that’s what they are trying to do.”

The Falcons have a formula.

“They are going to run the football,” Whitworth said. “They are going to shorten the game and limit the (opportunities) that teams have against (their) defense.”

Sherman played cornerback from 2011-21. He was with Seattle (2011-17), San Francisco (2018-20) and Tampa Bay (2021).

He also approves of the Falcons’ new style of play.

“That’s old-school Pete Carroll football,” Sherman said. “Pete Carroll philosophy, and that’s who I was raised under for the majority of my career.”

The Falcons’ ability to run the ball is the key.

“You’re not winning the Super Bowl throwing it 45 times a game,” Sherman said. “I know the Kansas City Chiefs got away with it one year, but for the most part, over the last decade, a team has to run the ball in the playoffs and play good defense to win a championship, regardless of who your quarterback is.”

Evans, a first-round pick in 2018 who played with Tennessee and signed a one-year contract with the Falcons, embodies the spirit of the team. Linebackers coach Frank Bush said Evans plays hard and with grit.

“I know one way of football, and I feel that works for me,” Evans said. “Some guys have other ways in which they play. But that’s my way of playing. That’s my foundation. By me doing that, I try to make it contagious to other players.”

Reuniting with defensive coordinator Dean Pees has helped Evans, too.

“It’s always good, too, that you have coaches who accept you for who you are,” Evans said. “Coaches who are always trying to get you better.”

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Atlanta Falcons 2022 schedule

Sept. 11: Saints 27, Falcons 26

Sept. 18: Rams 31, Falcons 27

Sept. 25 Falcons 27, Seahawks 23

Oct. 2 Falcons 23, Browns 20

Oct. 9 Buccaneers 21, Falcons 15

Oct. 16 Falcons 28, 49ers 14

Oct. 23 Bengals 35, Falcons 17

Oct. 30 Falcons 37, Panthers 34 OT

Nov. 6 vs. Los Angeles Chargers, 1 p.m.

Nov. 10 at Carolina, 8:15 p.m.

Nov. 20 vs. Chicago, 1 p.m.

Nov. 27 at Washington, 1 p.m.

Dec. 4 vs. Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

BYE WEEK

Dec. 18 at New Orleans, TBD

Dec. 24 at Baltimore, 1 p.m.

Jan. 1 vs. Arizona, 1 p.m.

Jan. 8 vs. Tampa Bay, TBD