My early pick for the New Orleans Saints' 2016 record: 8-8. Although I think they're capable of beating anyone with Drew Brees at quarterback, and I think their defense can't help but improve. The consistency just hasn't been there in back-to-back 7-9 seasons. Here's how I see things playing out:
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 11 vs. Oakland Raiders, 1 p.m. ET
A tough pick right out of the gates. I don't necessarily expect the Saints to start slow, but I am expecting inconsistency. And the Raiders are exactly the kind of unfamiliar opponent that could trip them up. Oakland is one of the NFL's rising young teams, led by sensational pass-rusher Khalil Mack, quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Amari Cooper. Record: 0-1.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 18 at New York Giants, 1 p.m. ET
We'll see a lot of offense in this one, but I'll boldly predict that it will fall short of another 52-49 explosion like we saw in the Superdome last year, when Brees threw seven TD passes and Eli Manning threw six. Both defenses should be at least a little better, especially after New York spent mega-millions in free agency. I'll give the Giants the home-field edge this time. Record: 0-2.
Week 3: Monday, Sept. 26 vs. Atlanta Falcons, 8:30 p.m. ET
This is the marquee game on the schedule -- the 10-year anniversary of New Orleans' return to the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina in 2006 on Monday Night Football. The Saints have had the Falcons' number over the past decade (15-5 since '06). It's especially hard to pick against them in this setting. Record: 1-2.
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2 at San Diego Chargers, 4:25 p.m. ET
Another dramatic reunion game with Brees returning to San Diego for the first time since he joined the Saints in 2006. Normally I would pick against the Saints in a West Coast game on a short travel week. But I'm not picking against Brees in a spot where he has something to prove. Record: 2-2.
Week 5: Bye
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16 vs. Carolina Panthers, 1 p.m. ET
Of course Carolina offers a tough test, coming off of a 15-1 season, a trip to the Super Bowl and Cam Newton winning the MVP award. But the Saints always play their divisional rivals tough, and this time they get them at home, coming off of a bye. Record: 3-2.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23 at Kansas City Chiefs, 1 p.m. ET
The win streak ends here. The Saints often have trouble in outdoor games against unfamiliar foes. And this particular opponent is really, really good. The Chiefs had four Pro Bowlers on defense last year while ranking third in the NFL in points allowed. Record: 3-3.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30 vs. Seattle Seahawks, 1 p.m. ET
Another great defense, and another loss for the Saints. The most compelling angle in this game will be the return of Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham to New Orleans, assuming he is fully recovered from his ruptured patellar tendon. Record: 3-4.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6 at San Francisco 49ers, 4:05 p.m. ET
I don't love this cross-country matchup for the Saints, either. But if I don't sneak in a win here, I'll be projecting an awfully long drought. It will be interesting to see what the 49ers look like under new coach Chip Kelly. It will be even more interesting to see who's playing quarterback for them. Record: 4-4.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13 vs. Denver Broncos, 1 p.m. ET
Yet another team with a mystery quarterback. The Broncos have lost a lot of talent since their Super Bowl win (QB Peyton Manning, QB Brock Osweiler, DT Malik Jackson, LB Danny Trevathan). But they still have a great defense led by Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, which gives them the edge. Record: 4-5.
Week 11: Thursday, Nov. 17 at Carolina Panthers, 8:25 p.m. ET
You never know what might happen in these rivalry games -- the Saints routed the Panthers on the road on a Thursday night two years ago. But I'm not picking the Saints to knock off Newton and Luke Kuechly in their place on a short week this time around. Record: 4-6.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27 vs. Los Angeles Rams, 1 p.m. ET
We at least have some idea of who the Rams' quarterback will be now that they've traded up to No. 1 in the draft (either Jared Goff or Carson Wentz). Either way, I'll give the Saints the edge, since they'll be at home and coming off of a nine-day break. Record: 5-6.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4 vs. Detroit Lions, 1 p.m. ET
I thought about picking against the Saints here, since they always lose at least one game they shouldn't, and they've lost to Detroit in each of the past two years. But the Lions have been trending downward, and they lost WR Calvin Johnson to retirement. Record: 6-6.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1 p.m. ET
It was a stunner when the Saints lost at home to Tampa Bay in Week 2 last year, when QB Jameis Winston was making his first career road start. But it won't be a surprise when these two NFC South foes split again this year. Winston will be more seasoned in Year 2, though the Buccaneers now have a rookie head coach in former offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Record: 6-7.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18 at Arizona Cardinals, 4:05 p.m. ET
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1 p.m. ET
I mentioned Winston and Koetter earlier. So this time I'll mention Tampa's two elite defensive players -- DT Gerald McCoy and LB Lavonte David, who cause fits for New Orleans every year. I also like Tampa's addition of DE Robert Ayers. But I'm picking the home-and-home split, and it's the Saints' turn to win. Record: 7-8.
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1 at Atlanta Falcons, 1 p.m. ET
I'll be curious to see if the Falcons can get their defense going and work themselves into playoff contention in Year 2 under coach Dan Quinn. But my guess is we'll get an exact repeat of Week 17 last year -- the Saints edging the Falcons as both teams just miss out on the playoffs. Record: 8-8.