Five games that will shape Saints' season

There's not a single game on the New Orleans Saints' 2014 schedule that they CAN'T win. And I'm not just saying that in an “any given Sunday” kind of way.

I truly believe the Saints' ceiling is that high. And they don't have any games on this year's slate that seem extremely daunting (something like at Seattle, at Denver, at San Francisco or even at Baltimore late in the year).

That being said, the Saints won't go 16-0 in 2014. And they will inevitably lose one or two games that they have no business losing, based on history.

I predicted the Saints to go 11-5 but came close to predicting 12-4. They should win the NFC South and contend for a top-two seed in the NFC.

With all of that in mind, I've singled out the five games that will have the biggest impact on the Saints' fate in 2014. Not just the five toughest, but the five make-or-break games that I feel like they need to win to earn one of those top seeds.

Here's my criteria:

  • I left off all of the games that the Saints should definitely win (I'm looking at you, Minnesota -- and even the home dates with Tampa Bay and Atlanta.)

  • I also left off the two toughest games on the Saints' schedule -- Week 9 at Carolina and Week 16 at Chicago -- because it would be understandable if the Saints drop those difficult games.

  • And I left off all four AFC opponents. Even though I think the Saints should go 4-0 against the AFC North this year, if they have to have a bad week, that's the time to do it for tie-breaker purposes.

So what's left? The five most critical games of the season:

1. Week 1, at Atlanta.

The Saints need to sweep Atlanta. The Falcons will be much tougher than they were last year, especially with receiver Julio Jones back in the fold. The Saints can't let them right back into the NFC South race in Week 1. This game would be vital no matter when it occurred this season. In Week 1, it's especially important.

2. Week 14, vs. Carolina.

This one's obvious since Carolina edged out New Orleans for the NFC South title last year. I expect the Panthers to take a step back this season, but they'll still be playoff contenders. Ideally the Saints will go a perfect 8-0 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome again like they did last year. But they absolutely have to take care of business at home against their NFC South rivals. If they also beat Carolina on the road in Week 9, all the better.

3. Week 10, vs. San Francisco.

The 49ers are arguably the toughest opponents on the Saints' entire schedule this year. But the Saints get them at home, which is obviously a huge advantage. Last year, the Saints finally beat the 49ers inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and they have to do it again this year. Especially since New Orleans will be coming off of a 10-day rest following the Thursday night game at Carolina.

4. Week 7, at Detroit.

The Lions are a sneaky-good NFC playoff contender. So the Saints certainly don't want to drop a game that could wind up mattering in playoff tie-breaker scenarios. And this is one New Orleans should be able to win for two reasons: The Saints will be coming off their bye week, and they always match up well against teams that are built similarly and want to engage in a shootout.

5. Week 8, vs. Green Bay.

A Sunday night prime-time game in the Dome. The Saints can't lose, right? The Saints have won 13 straight prime-time home games -- by an average of roughly 20 points per game. They'd better make sure that streak of dominance continues, because the Packers will be in the thick of the NFC playoff race once again. ... The Saints had better be 6-1 or 5-2 by this stage of the season, because the schedule gets tougher in the second half.