Game-by-game predictions: New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints are a bigger question mark than usual after a 7-9 meltdown and offseason makeover. They still might have the most talent in the NFC South, starting with quarterback Drew Brees. But they have to regain the home dominance that disappeared last season. (They have the NFL’s second-easiest home schedule, based on 2014 winning percentage.)

Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 13, at Arizona, 4:05 p.m. ET

This isn’t the easiest way to open the schedule, but the Cardinals won’t be in midseason form yet as quarterback Carson Palmer tries to make it back from a torn ACL and they adjust with some new parts on defense. I’m picturing the Saints slugging out an ugly win, as they did to kick off the 2006 season in Cleveland. Saints 19, Cardinals 17. Record: 1-0

Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 20, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m. ET

This could be the first NFL road start for Jameis Winston if the Bucs draft him first overall and hand him the keys. Hopefully for New Orleans’ sake, it goes better than when rookie Robert Griffin III came into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and smoked them in the 2012 season opener. Saints 30, Buccaneers 17. Record: 2-0

Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 27, at Carolina, 1 p.m. ET

The Saints would love to get some revenge over their division rivals, who won the NFC South last year by embarrassing New Orleans in a 41-10 rout in the Superdome in Week 14. But there’s bound to be some bumps in the road at some point, so I’ll pick the first one here as quarterback Cam Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart test the Saints’ run defense. Panthers 27, Saints 23. Record: 2-1

Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 4, Dallas, 8:30 p.m. ET

The Saints are usually awesome in prime-time games in the dome, and I imagine they’ll find a way to get their home “mojo” back this year. But Dallas has become an awfully tough matchup with that dominant offensive line. Two big questions: Who will be the Cowboys’ running back (Adrian Peterson, perhaps)? And will newly-signed pass rusher Greg Hardy be active? Cowboys 30, Saints 23. Record: 2-2

Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 11, at Philadelphia, 1 p.m. ET

The two most dramatic teams in free agency should provide just as much excitement on the field with Sean Payton and Chip Kelly running their potent offenses. Plus, the Saints will reunite with disgruntled former running back Darren Sproles and former safety Malcolm Jenkins. The Saints proved they could win here in the playoffs two years ago, but I’ll predict a close loss and some early-season adversity with a three-game skid. Eagles 34, Saints 31. Record: 2-3

Week 6: Thursday, Oct. 15, Atlanta, 8:25 p.m. ET

Finally. After three straight years of Thursday games on the road, the Saints get one at home – and they take advantage. If new Falcons coach Dan Quinn can get their defense turned around, I think they could prove to be New Orleans’ toughest rival for the NFC South this year with dynamic receiver Julio Jones leading the way. Saints 31, Falcons 24. Record: 3-3

Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 25, at Indianapolis, 1 p.m. ET

At some point, the Saints will win a game they shouldn’t (and lose a few they should). I’ll make this the surprise victory with an extra three days of rest and Brees delivering in a high-profile QB showdown against Andrew Luck. Jimmy Graham is gone, but second-year receiver Brandon Cooks and new runner/receiver C.J. Spiller should be hitting their stride by this time. Saints 34, Colts 30. Record: 4-3

Week 8: Sunday, Nov. 1, N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m. ET

Yet another opponent with a potent offense and a so-so defense should lead to another shootout. New Orleans/Louisiana natives Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr. and Rueben Randle will test New Orleans’ secondary, but they’ll come up short. Saints 33, Giants 24. Record: 5-3

Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 8, Tennessee, 1 p.m. ET

Could the Saints be hosting another rookie quarterback this week if the Titans draft Marcus Mariota? Or Brees’ former backup, Philip Rivers, if a blockbuster trade goes down? Or former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger? Regardless, this is a “must-win” type game for New Orleans against a team trying to bounce back from a 2-14 season. Saints 27, Titans 16. Record: 6-3

Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 15, at Washington, 1 p.m. ET

This feels like a ripe time for one of those duds, on the road against an unfamiliar foe with the bye week looming – especially if RGIII is able to get his career back on track by this point. Redskins 26, Saints 20. Record: 6-4

Week 11: BYE

Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 29, at Houston, 1 p.m. ET

I’ll predict another snag here against a potent Texans defense and solid run game that wins out in an ugly clash of styles. This is yet another matchup in which it’s tough to predict who will be playing quarterback for the other side (Brian Hoyer? Ryan Mallett?) But it might not matter if J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are in peak form. Texans 23, Saints 17. Record: 6-5

Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 6, Carolina, 1 p.m. ET

I still can’t explain what happened to the Saints last year when they lost their final five games in the Superdome, including the 31-point drubbing by the Panthers late in the season. But I expect a return to normalcy this year and a much different result. For the third straight year, a December matchup with Carolina could help decide the NFC South title. Saints 27, Panthers 20. Record: 7-5

Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 13, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m. ET

Another candidate for one of those unexpected road losses if the weather is sloppy or the Saints don’t show up (they’ve had a few of each at Tampa Bay over the years). But I’ll pick a victory here as the Buccaneers should still be a team going through some growing pains. It will be interesting to see how much Winston (or Mariota) has matured by this point. Saints 24, Buccaneers 16. Record: 8-5

Week 15: Monday, Dec. 21, Detroit, 7:30 p.m. ET

The Saints will look to avenge their most gut-wrenching loss from 2014, when they blew a 13-point lead at Detroit with less than four minutes to go. This time, the Lions should have a healthy Calvin Johnson on their side, but the Saints are hoping new physical cornerback Brandon Browner can help them counter guys like him. Saints 28, Lions 21. Record: 9-5

Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 27, Jacksonville, 1 p.m. ET

Another “must-win” game at home against a team that went 3-13 in 2014. But the Jaguars should be growing up by this point with second-year quarterback Blake Bortles, young playmakers Denard Robinson, Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee and whomever winds up being the third pick in this year’s draft. Saints 34, Jaguars 20. Record: 10-5

Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 3, at Atlanta, 1 p.m. ET

Based on last season’s dreadful NFC South performance, the Saints would be able to rest their starters with 10 wins at this point. Or this game might wind up deciding who wins the division, as I suspect a nice bounce-back year from the Falcons under Quinn. Either way, I’ll give this victory to Atlanta on its home turf. The Saints hold a decisive 13-5 edge in this series during the Payton/Brees era, but the Falcons went 2-0 last year. Falcons 27, Saints 24. Record: 10-6