Schedule adds to Saints' woes

As if things weren't bad enough for the New Orleans Saints, add the schedule to their growing list of problems.

Head coach Sean Payton will start his season-long suspension Monday. Interim coach Joe Vitt is out the first six games, and general manager Mickey Loomis is out eight games. The Saints don't have choices in Rounds 1 and 2 of the draft, and they could lose defensive players to suspensions in the bounty scandal.

The schedule could add more woes, judging by the difference in opponents' winning percentage. The Saints might not have the hardest schedule in football, but the .055 difference between last year's .449 schedule and 2012's .504 schedule is the biggest differential in football. My studies of schedules over the years indicate that any change of .020 is worth a win or a loss.

Based on those numbers, the Saints could drop about three games from their 13-3 2011 record, and that's not taking into account the losses on the coaching staff and potentially in personnel. To make matters worse, it might be hard for the Saints to go 5-1 in what should become a tough NFC South.

The Carolina Panthers improved four games last year because of the play of quarterback Cam Newton. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have changed coaches after a horrible 4-12 season and had perhaps the best offseason, adding wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright.

The schedule points to the possibility of the Atlanta Falcons winning the NFC South. The Falcons have minimal change from their 2011 schedule. They went 10-6 last season on a .480 schedule. In 2012, they have a .488 schedule. Their out-of-division opponents were 79-81 last season, which makes that portion of the Falcons' schedule -- 10 games -- about the 17th easiest in the league.

New Orleans, however, plays the sixth-toughest out-of-division schedule at 89-71. Like everyone else in the NFC South, the Saints play the NFC East and the AFC West, which just got tougher because of the addition of Peyton Manning. Because the Saints won the division, they also draw the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers, teams that had combined records of 28-4 last year.

That means the Saints' defense could face Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Michael Vick, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman. Ouch.

Scheduling is one of the reasons we usually see a 50 percent turnover in playoff teams every year. The Saints won the NFC South in 2009 and 2011, years in which they played the easiest schedule in football. The Falcons won the division in 2010 because their toughest games were at home while the Saints' toughest games were on the road.

The Baltimore Ravens could lose their one-year edge over the Pittsburgh Steelers because of the schedule. They go from a .477 schedule in 2011 to a .523, a .046 change that could pull them down by two games from their 12-4 finish. Their .523 schedule is the fourth toughest in the league, tied with the St. Louis Rams.

Complicating things is a first-place schedule that includes games against the New England Patriots and Houston Texans. The Steelers, meanwhile, go from a .492 schedule to a .500, a minimal change that could allow them to stay at the 12-4 level.

Winning the NFC East won't be easy. It wasn't easy last year when the New York Giants got hot at the end of the season and won an underachieving division with a 9-7 record. The Giants, Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles face schedules that range from .026 to .031 tougher than last year. The Giants, for example, face the toughest non-division schedule in football, going against teams with a 98-62 combined record, a burden that means they could play better and still have a tough time getting nine wins.

The NFC East plays the NFC South and the AFC North. The Eagles face a .516 schedule, .026 tougher than last year. The Dallas Cowboys play a .504 schedule, .031 tougher than last season.

The San Francisco 49ers' chances of winning 13 games aren't good. Jim Harbaugh's team breezed through a .449 schedule that helped it win 13 games in 2011. The 49ers' success was rewarded with a slightly tougher .488 schedule in a division that is getting tougher. That .039 change could drop them to 11-5, but to do that, they would have to stay at 5-1 in a tougher division. Their 91-69 out-of-division schedule is the third toughest in the league.

Watch for at least one of the wild cards to come out of the NFC North because of easier schedules. The NFC North plays the NFC West and AFC South. Peyton Manning is gone to Denver, leaving Matt Schaub of the Texans as the toughest quarterback in that eight-game package of nondivision games.

As a result, the Green Bay Packers end up with the second-easiest schedule in the league, playing teams that were 120-136. The Detroit Lions could be an 11- or 12 win team thanks to a .043 change in their 2012 schedule, going from .535 to a .492. The Chicago Bears benefit from a .035 break, going from a .527 schedule to a .492.

Don't expect anyone to catch the New England Patriots in the AFC East. They ended up with the league's easiest schedule at .453 and face only four teams with nine or more victories last season.