From two defensive starters to a fill-in offensive lineman to a pair of special teams attention-grabbers, there are five reasons for Utahns to tune in for Sunday's NFL wild-card matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers.
The contest (2:40 p.m. MST, FOX) will wrap up the wild-card weekend and features five local ties on the active rosters for the Saints and Panthers. Four of those players will be making their first playoff appearance, while Star Lotulelei is returning to the postseason for the fourth time in five seasons.
All five have intriguing storylines this year.
FOR THE NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Marcus Williams, S, Utah: Of all the locals in Sunday’s matchup, Williams could have the biggest impact.
Last year, the Saints secondary gave up a league-worst 273.8 yards passing per game and 27 touchdowns through the air while intercepting just nine passes.
With Williams and fellow rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans improved to 18th in the league in defensive passing yards per game, giving up 224.8. The Saints also gave up five fewer passing touchdowns and intercepted 20 passes, third-most in the NFL.
The second-round draft pick Williams played a big part in that resurgence, finishing the regular season with 73 tackles, third-most on the team, and four interceptions, second among Saints defenders behind only Lattimore. Williams had two interceptions in the regular-season finale and picked off Carolina’s Cam Newton during a Week 3 game.
“The secondary, led by precocious rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore and rookie free safety Marcus Williams, has transformed from a weakness to a strength in a year’s time,” The Times-Picayune wrote.
Taysom Hill, QB, BYU: While Williams may have the biggest impact, Hill could be the most talked about among the five Utah ties playing in this game.
The Saints’ third-string quarterback is the most intriguing option. Could he play on offense? Will he finally block a punt? Hill has made noise over the past month as a special teams contributor, lining up on punt returns and kickoffs.
Since being activated for his first career NFL regular-season game — ironically enough, against Carolina in Week 13 — Hill has played 71 snaps on special teams and made four tackles. He played more than 50 percent of the Saints’ special teams snaps over the past three weeks.
When he played one offensive snap as a wide receiver in New Orleans’ 23-13 win over Atlanta on Christmas Eve, it grabbed attention.
"When you can move a quarterback around, that can become challenging, both defensively and in the kicking game," Saints coach Sean Payton told The New Orleans Advocate.
Like he did at BYU, Hill is captivating the fans in New Orleans, and his playing time is something to watch this weekend.
FOR THE CAROLINA PANTHERS
Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah, Snow College and Bingham High: This will be Lotulelei’s sixth playoff game in his five-year pro career. That included a run to the Super Bowl two years ago when the Panthers lost to Denver 24-10 in Super Bowl 50.
In his five previous playoff appearances, Lotulelei has started five games (he missed a playoff game his second season after breaking a small bone in his foot the week of the game) and has totaled 18 tackles, including 11 solo stops, and a pass deflection.
During the Super Bowl loss to the Broncos, Lotulelei’s last postgame appearance, he had five tackles, including four solo stops and two tackles for loss.
Expect more of the same from Lotulelei, who started every game for Carolina this season and finished with 25 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a pass deflection. He’s helped the Panthers ranked third in the NFL in rush defense, giving up 88.1 yards per game on the ground, and also third in sacks, with 50.
Lotulelei and the Panthers’ defensive front, though, will face a stiff challenge from New Orleans, whose offense is fifth in the league in rushing yards per game (126.1) and has given up only 20 sacks in 2017, second-best in the NFL.
Kaelin Clay, WR/PR, Utah: The return specialist will be making his playoff debut in his third NFL season, and he could be due for a larger role in the offensive game, in good part due to injuries.
Injuries to fellow receivers Curtis Samuel and Damiere Byrd have opened the door for others to make an impact in Carolina’s passing game that includes five wide receivers: Clay, Devin Funchess (who leads the group with 63 receptions for 840 yards and eight touchdowns), Russell Shepard, Brenton Bersin and Mose Frazier. Carolina traded its top wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, to Buffalo midseason, and the trade and injuries have left Carolina with only one wideout, Funchess, who was drafted by the team on the active roster.
Clay is the team’s best over-the-top speed option in the passing game.
“A lot of us were no-names coming out or still are no-names, but we love it. We love the role that we play on this team, and we like being the underdogs,” Clay told panthers.com.
Clay is currently listed as a backup as wide receiver and has six catches for 85 yards on the year, his first season with a reception as a pro. Half of those receptions — three for 39 yards — came in the final two weeks of the regular season. He played 42 offensive snaps, second among wide receivers, in the Panthers’ regular-season finale and 16 the week before after playing single-digit offensive snaps in Weeks 14 and 15.
Of course, Clay could have a big impact on special teams as well. The Panthers’ return specialist has averaged 8.6 yards on 17 punts in 2017, and that included a 60-yard punt return for a touchdown earlier this season.
Tyler Larsen, C, Utah State and Jordan High: Though he isn’t expected to play a major role in the postseason, Larsen filled in solidly for five-time Pro Bowler Ryan Kalil for much of the regular season.
Larsen started 10 games at center and has played in 14 games this season while filling in for Kalil, who missed time with a neck injury.
The former Aggie who went undrafted helped Carolina finish the year fourth in rushing (131.4 yards per game) in the NFL. He also dealt with a foot injury in early December and missed two games.
"The offense as a whole has been gelling more so than one position group. (Center) Tyler (Larsen) has done a great job; our O-line has done a great job,” Kalil told panthers.com in late November.
Of note: Former Utah linebacker Jared Norris was placed on the Panthers’ injured reserve on Dec. 5 after he injured his calf.
LOCALS IN OTHER GAMES
TENNESSEE AT KANSAS CITY, SATURDAY, 2:35 P.M. MST (ESPN/ABC)
This game should also attract plenty of attention among Utahns. Kansas City coach Andy Reid, a former BYU player, has an 11-12 career playoff record. Former Utah quarterback Alex Smith will make his seventh career playoff start, including his fifth with the Chiefs. Smith has completed 60 percent of his passes while throwing for 1,481 yards, 12 touchdowns and two interceptions in his six previous playoff starts. Former BYU safety Daniel Sorensen is expected to make his first playoff start for Kansas City after a standout year, while offensive lineman Jordan Devey (American Fork High, Snow College) and wide receiver Marcus Kemp (Layton High) are on the active roster for the Chiefs. Brice McCain, now with the Titans, returns to the postseason for the first time in four seasons when he played for Pittsburgh, while former Southern Utah corner LeShaun Sims is on injured reserve for Tennessee.
ATLANTA FALCONS AT LOS ANGELES RAMS, SATURDAY, 6:15 P.M. (NBC)
Former Utah defensive end Derrick Shelby is making his playoff debut in his second season with the Falcons, and sixth overall. He had 30 tackles and a sack while starting 14 games this season. Former Utah cornerback Dominique Hatfield is currently on the practice squad with the Rams.
BUFFALO BILLS AT JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS, SUNDAY, 11:05 A.M. (CBS)
Both teams have a local on their practice squad: former BYU offensive tackle De’Ondre Wesley with Buffalo and former Utah and Syracuse High defensive end Hunter Dimick with Jacksonville.