Fast start a must for Saints, but injuries, schedule might not allow it

METAIRIE, La. -- The best-case scenario for the New Orleans Saints? Follow the blueprint of their most heated rivals, the Atlanta Falcons.

Last season, the Falcons had the NFL's hottest offense, and they finally turned their defense around because a handful of young players stepped up in key roles. That's what the Saints are capable of doing at their best.

However, we also know the Saints are capable of starting slowly and finishing 7-9 -- since that's exactly what they've done in each of the past three seasons.

Starting fast has been a huge point of emphasis for New Orleans this summer (it started 1-3, 0-3, 0-3 the past three years). But that's a much taller task than it might seem. The first three games are an absolute bear (at the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football ,vs. the New England Patriots on a short week of rest, at the Carolina Panthers).

And since I predicted the Saints to finish 9-7 back in April, they've lost defensive tackle Nick Fairley for the season because of a heart issue, and offensive tackle Terron Armstead and cornerback Delvin Breaux for at least the first month or so.

As a result, I've revised my season prediction to 8-8. Here's how I see things playing out:

Week 1: Monday, Sept. 11, at Minnesota Vikings, 7:10 p.m. ET

Must-see TV for the Monday night opener as new Saints running back Adrian Peterson returns to face his former team. I don't expect a 1,000-yard season from AD, but I do expect a big debut performance from the 32-year-old, who has been healthy all summer and will be motivated for this game. However, this is still a tough setting for the Saints to win in. Record: 0-1

Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 17, vs. New England Patriots, 1 p.m. ET

Another big-time reunion game, with the Saints facing receiver Brandin Cooks after trading him to New England. New Orleans' young secondary will have to develop quickly to handle Tom Brady and the Patriots' loaded offense. There has been a lot of talk about the Pats going 19-0 this season. Their chase won't end this early -- especially with the Saints operating on such a short week. Record: 0-2

Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 24, at Carolina Panthers, 1 p.m. ET

Another week, another reunion game, since two of the Saints' biggest free-agent acquisitions were former Carolina receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and linebacker A.J. Klein. As I wrote back in April, there's no way the Panthers are really as bad as their 6-10 record indicated last season (just like they weren't really as good as their 15-1 campaign in 2015). This will be a huge early season game for what figures to be a four-team race in the NFC South. Record: 0-3

Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 1, at Miami Dolphins in London, 9:30 a.m. ET

Miami was sneaky good last season, winning nine of 10 games from Weeks 6-16 to make the playoffs at 10-6. But the Dolphins will have to recover from the nightmare scenario of losing quarterback Ryan Tannehill to a season-ending knee injury in the preseason. Veteran replacement Jay Cutler should have time to shake off the rust by Week 4, but I'll still give the Saints the edge in what could be an early must-win. 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. ... Another subplot: Guard Larry Warford will face his former team after signing a blockbuster free-agent deal with the Saints. He has had a really good training camp and looks like a potential difference-maker. 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

Will we see rookie Mitch Trubisky or veteran Mike Glennon in this one? Either way, I'm sticking with what I said in April -- the Saints can't afford to play nice against the team run by their former personnel director Ryan Pace and Payton's good friend John Fox. This is the type of struggling team they have to be able to beat at home. Record: 3-4

Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 5, vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1 p.m. ET

The Bucs have become one of the NFL's "it" teams because of rising star quarterback Jameis Winston, stud fourth-year receiver Mike Evans, the free-agent splash addition of veteran receiver DeSean Jackson and their summer spotlight on "Hard Knocks." 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. I'll give New Orleans the slight edge at home in a game that could wind up having postseason implications. 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 middle-of-the-pack 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). Washington's loaded receiving corps, led by tight end Jordan Reed and new receiver Terrelle Pryor Sr., will give the Saints' rebuilt secondary all it can handle. This could also mark the return of Redskins pass-rusher Junior Galette, who is just as eager to face the Saints as Peterson is to face the Vikings. Record: 5-5

Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 26 at Los Angeles Rams, 4:05 p.m. ET

I should probably give the Saints a victory here against a Rams team that has ranked last in the NFL in offensive yardage in each of the past two seasons. But they have one of the NFL's more formidable defenses, led by stud defensive tackle Aaron Donald. And the Saints are always good for an unexpected dud here or there -- especially against the Rams back when they were in St. Louis. It will be interesting to see how quickly L.A.'s rookie head coach Sean McVay and sophomore quarterback Jared Goff have grown up at this point. Record: 5-6

Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 3, vs. Carolina 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? 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. I have no idea who will be starting for the Jets at quarterback by this point in the season -- but I know it's my easiest prediction on the schedule. Record: 7-7

Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 24, vs. Atlanta 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 season 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 season. So, yeah, these division home games will be pretty important. Record: 8-7

Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 31, at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1 p.m. ET

My only change to my April predictions, since I decided to knock New Orleans from 9-7 to 8-8. But who knows -- this could wind up being a playoff play-in game, and the Saints should be healthier and more mature by the end of the season. Win or lose, I expect a better performance than last season, when the Saints dropped their biggest dud of the season in Tampa -- a 16-11 loss in sloppy weather. Record: 8-8