The New Orleans Saints have gone 7-9 five times in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, including the past three seasons.
Their starts in those five seasons: 0-4, 0-4, 1-3, 0-3 and 0-3.
The five years they’ve made the playoffs? They started 5-1, 13-0, 3-1, 4-1 and 5-0.
Needless to say, a fast start will be a huge point of emphasis in 2017. Unfortunately, the NFL’s schedule-makers have made that an extremely difficult task. The Saints will open with a Monday night road game at the Minnesota Vikings, then host the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots on a short week, then play at the Carolina Panthers, then face the Miami Dolphins in London.
If they can survive that stretch at 2-2 or better, the Saints can be legitimate playoff contenders with an improved defense and still-elite offense.
Unfortunately, I’m predicting more of a déjà vu season, with a slow start leaving New Orleans just short at 9-7:
Week 1: Monday, Sept. 11, at Vikings, 7:10 p.m. ET
I don’t know how serious the Saints are about signing running back Adrian Peterson, who made a free-agent visit to New Orleans earlier this month. But I do know the league’s got a marquee Monday night opener on its hands if Peterson winds up in NOLA. Obviously this is a tough way to start (which is why I’m giving New Orleans a loss). But a win could set the tone for the Saints’ entire season. Best-case scenario: They wind up back in Minnesota for Super Bowl LII in February. Record: 0-1.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 17, vs. Patriots, 1 p.m. ET
Brees vs. Tom Brady, Brandin Cooks vs. his old team and a possible Malcolm Butler reunion will make this the best home game on New Orleans’ home schedule by far. The bad news? The Saints will be playing on short rest, while New England will have extra rest after the Thursday night opener. The silver lining? I would have predicted the Patriots to win this game no matter where it appeared on the schedule. Of course, the Saints are still capable of a win at home, which would provide some huge early-season momentum. Record: 0-2.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 24, at Panthers, 1 p.m. ET
No way are the Panthers really as bad as their 6-10 record indicated last year. But they did show that they’re human after a remarkable 15-1 campaign in 2015. And quarterback Cam Newton might still be shaking off the rust at this point after his March shoulder surgery. I’m giving Carolina the slight edge. Subplot: New Saints middle linebacker A.J. Klein and receiver Ted Ginn Jr. will be facing their former team after defecting in free agency. Record: 0-3.
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 1, at Dolphins in London, 9:30 a.m. ET
It’s possible the Saints could travel straight from Carolina to London (which is how they did it the last time they played, and won, in London in 2008). Regardless, this could be an early must-win game if they start 0-3 or 1-2. I say they pull it off, even though the Dolphins are a sneaky-good team. Miami won nine of 10 games from Weeks 6-16 last year to make the playoffs at 10-6. Record: 1-3.
Week 5: Bye
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 15, vs. Detroit Lions, 1 p.m. ET
These teams are meeting for the fourth straight year -- and the Lions have won each of the past three meetings, including two straight in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But I’m betting on the law of averages here, saying the Saints should be able to win at home, coming off the bye week, against solid-but-unspectacular opponent. Another subplot: Guard Larry Warford will face his former team after signing a blockbuster free-agent deal with the Saints. Record: 2-3.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 22, at Green Bay Packers, 1 p.m. ET
The tundra won’t be frozen yet. But the Saints still have to face all-world quarterback Aaron Rodgers on his home turf. Although both teams intend to shore up their defenses this year, they’ve been good for a track meet in each of their past five meetings over the past 10 years, combining for at least 55 points every time. Record: 2-4.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 29, vs. Chicago Bears, 1 p.m. ET
I’m sure the Saints wish their former player personnel director Ryan Pace well after he has struggled to build a contender so far in his first two years as the Bears’ general manager. And Payton is close friends with Bears coach John Fox. But let’s face it, the Saints can’t afford to play nice. This is the type of struggling team they have to be able to beat at home. Worth noting: The Bears’ new quarterback, Mike Glennon, is a familiar opponent after growing up in the NFC South with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Record: 3-4.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 5, vs. Buccaneers, 1 p.m. ET
Speaking of the Bucs, they’ve become one of the NFL’s “it” teams because of their current quarterback Jameis Winston, stud fourth-year receiver Mike Evans and the free-agent splash addition of veteran receiver DeSean Jackson. But they haven’t taken that leap to playoff contention yet -- and the Saints need to make sure they don’t do it this year. Record: 4-4.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 12, at Buffalo Bills, 1 p.m. ET
You think the Saints are stuck in a rut after going 7-9 three years in a row? Check out the Bills’ win totals over the past 17 seasons: 8, 3, 8, 6, 9, 5, 7, 7, 7, 6, 4, 6, 6, 6, 9, 8, 7. They’re trying their latest reboot this year with new head coach Sean McDermott (who knows the Saints well as the former Panthers defensive coordinator). But this should be another winnable matchup the Saints need to exploit. Record: 5-4.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 19, vs. Washington Redskins, 1 p.m. ET
The three-game win streak comes to an end here, as the Saints run into another solid NFC foe fighting to get back into playoff contention (Washington went 8-7-1 last year as quarterback Kirk Cousins continued his rise into the upper tiers). Redskins linebacker Junior Galette certainly has this one circled on his calendar after the Saints unceremoniously cut him over character concerns two years ago (he tweeted about it here). Record: 5-5.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 26 at Los Angeles Rams, 4:05 p.m. ET
The Saints are usually good for a rough patch and one or two losses in winnable games -- so I’ll predict the mini-slump continues here, traveling across the country to face a team that still has one of the NFL’s more formidable defenses, led by stud defensive tackle Aaron Donald. It will be interesting to see how quickly the Rams have grown up at this point, with rookie head coach Sean McVay and second-year quarterback Jared Goff. Record: 5-6.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 3, vs. Panthers, 1 p.m. ET
Back at home, back against one of their most heated rivals, back on track. Maybe the NFL will even wise up and flex this one into prime time, since the Saints don’t have a single home game scheduled for Sunday night or Monday night this year for the first time since 2000. Record: 6-6.
Week 14: Thursday, Dec. 7, at Atlanta Falcons, 8:25 p.m. ET
Wait, we’ve come this far and New Orleans hasn’t even faced the defending NFC champion Falcons yet? Apparently December will be awfully exciting. It’s a bummer for the Saints, though, that this game is on the road. They’ve got a legitimate bone to pick with the NFL over this one. Since the league made Thursday night games a regular part of the schedule in 2012, the Saints have played five on the road and just one at home. Record: 6-7.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 17, vs. New York Jets, 1 p.m. ET
Another one of those must-win matchups at home against a struggling franchise. Could the Jets spice up this matchup a bit by drafting a quarterback in Round 1 next week? Sign me up for Deshaun Watson in the Dome in Week 15, please. Record: 7-7.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 24, vs. Falcons, 1 p.m. ET
The Falcons are destined to fall down to earth this year after their sizzling-hot run to the Super Bowl last year and devastating collapse in the game itself. In fact, I feel like all four NFC South teams could be within one or two games of one another in the standings this year. So, yeah, these division home games will be pretty important. Record: 8-7.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 31, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m. ET
Will 9-7 be enough to sneak into the playoffs? I’m not sure, but I could see the Saints finishing strong and making a serious run at it. They’ll make up for perhaps their ugliest dud of the 2016 season, when they slogged their way through a 16-11 loss on a sloppy-weather day at Tampa last December. Record: 9-7.