2018 New Orleans Saints game-by-game predictions

The New Orleans Saints are bona fide Super Bowl contenders again after they finally ended a three-year playoff drought last season. But if they're going to make a serious run in 2018, they'd better start fast.

After being plagued by slow starts over the past four years (1-3, 0-3, 0-3 and 0-2), the Saints can't afford a repeat with the schedule looking much more favorable in the first five weeks than the final 11.

The Saints open with back-to-back home games for the first time since 2004, and four of their first five opponents had losing records last year. On the flip side, nine of their final 11 opponents had winning records last year.

Here's how I see things playing out:

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

Tampa Bay's disappointing 2017 season reached its boiling point in New Orleans last year when a fight broke out on the sidelines after quarterback Jameis Winston and receiver Mike Evans got overly frustrated by cornerback Marshon Lattimore's shut-down performance. The Buccaneers failed to live up to lofty expectations, finishing last in the NFC South at 5-11 -- and the Saints can’t afford to let them start off on the right foot this season. Record: 1-0

Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, vs. Cleveland Browns, 1 p.m. ET

Likewise, the long-suffering Browns are bound to start turning things around soon after amassing so many premium draft picks in recent years (including the No. 1 and No. 4 overall picks next week). But the Saints can't let that turnaround begin just yet. Record: 2-0

Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, at Atlanta Falcons, 1 p.m. ET

The Saints can absolutely go into Atlanta and win -- like they’ve done in five of their past eight trips there and should have done again last season. But this rivalry is always close to a pick 'em. So if the Saints aren't going to start 5-0 heading into their bye week, this is the game that's mostly likely to trip them up. Record: 2-1

Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, at New York Giants, 4:25 p.m. ET

I don’t expect this to be an easy road trip, either, despite the Giants' stunning 3-13 flop last season. Remember, New York is just one year removed from a playoff season -- and native New Orleanians Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. are bound to bounce back. (Get your popcorn ready for that Beckham-Lattimore matchup, by the way.) Record: 3-1

Week 5: Monday, Oct. 8, vs. Washington Redskins, 8:15 p.m. ET

Surely, the NFL and ESPN must have planned this, right? If Saints quarterback Drew Brees starts hot, he could be on pace to break Peyton Manning’s career passing yardage record inside the Superdome on Monday Night Football. Brees will need to average just a shade under 300 yards per game in the first five games to surpass Manning's mark of 71,940. Record: 4-1

Week 6: Bye

Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 21, at Baltimore Ravens, 4:05 p.m. ET

Speaking of Brees, here's a trivia question for you: Name the only team he has yet to beat in his future Hall of Fame career. (How'd you guess?) Brees is 0-4 all time against the Ravens, and this could be his last crack at them since they play only once every four years. (Coach Sean Payton has beaten every team but Baltimore and Denver.) I say they get it done this time, despite this being a tough opponent to face on the road. The bye week should help. Record: 5-1

Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, at Minnesota Vikings, 8:20 p.m. ET

This figures to be one of the must-see matchups of the season, with two of the NFC's top teams squaring off in a rematch of their unforgettable playoff game from January. And the Saints are obviously overdue for a win in Minnesota after their season ended in crushing fashion in that game, courtesy of Stefon Diggs' miracle 61-yard touchdown catch. But I'll give Minnesota the win here. The Vikings are even more loaded now after signing quarterback Kirk Cousins and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in free agency. Record: 5-2

Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, vs. Los Angeles Rams, 4:25 p.m. ET

Speaking of top NFC title contenders, here comes another one into the Superdome a week later. The Rams also loaded up this offseason, acquiring defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, former Saints receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, among others. The Rams' defensive line, which already features all-world DT Aaron Donald, is downright frightening now. If any team can handle that front, it’s Payton, Brees and the Saints' loaded offensive line. But I'll give New Orleans the loss here, since they’re bound to face a little adversity at some point. Record: 5-3

Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, at Cincinnati Bengals, 1 p.m. ET

This is exactly the kind of "letdown" game against a solid, unfamiliar AFC opponent that I could see the Saints losing in the middle of an intense stretch that includes so many huge NFC matchups. But since I just hit them with the losses against Minnesota and L.A., I'll give them the win here against a Bengals team whose arrow is not pointing up right now. Record: 6-3

Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, vs. Philadelphia Eagles, 1 p.m. ET

Rest assured, I don't expect the Saints to lose against all of the other top NFC contenders this season -- so I'll give them the win in this one against an Eagles team that is bound to be battling a bit of a Super Bowl hangover. The Eagles, however, proved to be one of the NFL's most balanced teams last season and should have rising star quarterback Carson Wentz back healthy by this time. Record: 7-3

Week 12: Thursday, Nov. 22, vs. Atlanta Falcons, 8:20 p.m. ET

Finally. The Saints get to play a Thursday night game at home after they had to play four of their past five Thursday night games on the road. And this one comes on Thanksgiving night -- a first in Superdome history. Let the "roasted Falcon for Thanksgiving" jokes commence. Record: 8-3

Week 13: Thursday, Nov. 29, at Dallas Cowboys, 8:20 p.m. ET

Ummm ... forget what I said about those Thursday night games at home. I guess it was too good to be true. This streak of NFC contenders the Saints will be facing throughout November and December is remarkable -- and I think Dallas will be back among the conference's best teams with a bounce-back season from QB Dak Prescott, RB Ezekiel Elliott and a loaded offensive line. Record: 8-4

Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1 p.m. ET

Perhaps the Buccaneers finally will start tapping into their potential as a rising young team by December -- but for now it still feels like the Saints have their number a little bit. Record: 9-4

Week 15: Monday, Dec. 17, at Carolina Panthers, 8:15 p.m. ET

Speaking of having a team's number ... the Saints went a perfect 3-0 against the rival Panthers last season, including the playoffs -- which led to that unforgettable scene where Payton and players danced with a broom in the locker room. It won't be easy for them to pull off another sweep this season, especially considering their first rematch will come on a Monday night in possibly frigid mid-December weather conditions. But this is a road game the Saints have proved they can win in the past, and Carolina could take a step back this year after losing guard Andrew Norwell and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (though they did add DT Dontari Poe and receivers Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright, among others). Record: 10-4

Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, 4:25 p.m. ET

What a way to follow up a tough Monday night road game -- a date with the Steelers six days later. Since I gave the Saints a big win at Carolina, I'll give them the letdown loss in this one. If you prefer to flip-flop those two results, I won't quibble. Record: 10-5

Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, vs. Carolina Panthers, 1 p.m. ET

If I picked the Saints to win at Carolina, I've got to pick them to finish off another sweep at home, too, right? This doesn't feel fair to the Panthers, who have proved to be a more than worthy adversary for the Saints during the Cam Newton/Luke Kuechly era. Before last season's sweep, the Saints lost three straight games to Carolina (and six out of eight). One way or another, these two games over the final three weeks should have huge playoff implications. Record: 11-5