Only two prime-time games on Saints' schedule, but one is epic anniversary

Coach Sean Payton and the Saints are looking to rebound after missing the playoffs the past two seasons. Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports

Breakdown: The first game that stands out on the New Orleans Saints' 2016 schedule is probably the first one the NFL locked into place: Week 3, Monday Night Football against the Atlanta Falcons in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

That will mark the 10th anniversary of the Saints’ epic return to the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina in 2006, when Steve Gleason blocked a punt and led New Orleans to a 23-3 rout over the rival Falcons.

Surprisingly, though, that is one of only two prime-time games on New Orleans’ schedule (for now). This is the first time since 2006 that the Saints are scheduled to play fewer than three prime-time games -- a sign of how their star has faded a bit after back-to-back 7-9 seasons.

The other night game is a Week 11 Thursday road game at the rival Carolina Panthers, which immediately stands out as the toughest game on the entire schedule.

Drew Brees (finally) at San Diego: Another big reunion game will come six days later in Week 4, when Drew Brees returns to San Diego for the first time since he left the Chargers and signed with the Saints in 2006. Because the NFL tweaked its West Coast travel routine a few years back, Brees has never played at San Diego as an opponent. And it almost never happened since the Chargers flirted with a relocation to Los Angeles. Brees is 2-0 with the Saints against the Chargers (a win at London in 2008, at New Orleans in 2012).

Saints must win early: The Saints have the fourth-toughest schedule in the NFL, based on opponents’ win percentage in 2015. But they get to ease into things before it gets tougher by the month. The Saints don’t face a playoff team from last season until Week 6, when they host the Panthers. But then they have some tough stretches, including when they face both of last year’s Super Bowl teams in a span of five days (vs. Denver in Week 10, at Carolina on Thursday night in Week 11). The Saints also play three of their last four games on the road (at Tampa Bay in Week 14, at Arizona in Week 15, at Atlanta in Week 17).

The good news is that the Saints’ travel schedule is pretty favorable. Potential cold-weather games at the Giants, Chiefs and 49ers all come in the first nine weeks. The potential hot-weather game at Tampa comes late.

Strength of schedule: 4th, .547

Saints Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)

  • Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 11, Oakland, 1 p.m.

  • Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 18, at NY Giants, 1 p.m.

  • Week 3: Monday, Sept. 26, Atlanta, 8:30 p.m.

  • Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, at San Diego, 4:25 p.m.

  • Week 5: BYE

  • Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, Carolina, 1 p.m.

  • Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, at Kansas City, 1 p.m.

  • Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, Seattle, 1 p.m.

  • Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, at San Francisco, 4:05 p.m.

  • Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, Denver, 1 p.m.

  • Week 11: Thursday, Nov. 17, at Carolina, 8:25 p.m.

  • Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, Los Angeles, 1 p.m.

  • Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, Detroit, 1 p.m.

  • Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

  • Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, at Arizona, 4:05 p.m.

  • Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

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