The NFL announced its 2014 schedule earlier this week, and all 32 teams now know the 16 game trek they must take to get to the postseason. The New Orleans Saints, who played last season's third toughest schedule, wound up in a three-way tie with the Bengals and Steelers for this year's 23rd most difficult path, with a .469 opponent win percentage based on last year's results.
The Saints face a manageable schedule in 2014, yet it is a schedule which does present some difficult challenges. From opening on the road against their arch-rivals, to a short turnaround between primetime games against 2013 playoff teams, 4 games against the always stout AFC North, and tough road matchups late in the season, there will be no shortage of obstacles for the team to overcome. That being said, getting off on the right foot in September may just be the key to what the Saints need to do in order to set the table for a return to the playoffs this season.
- Week 1- Sunday September 7- @Atlanta 12pm Fox
- Week 2- Sunday September 14- @Cleveland 12pm Fox
- Week 3- Sunday September 21- Minnesota 12pm Fox
- Week 4- Sunday September 28- @Dallas 7:30pm NBC
Week 1- @Atlanta
- As mentioned above, the Saints kick things off in Atlanta, a reverse of how last season began when the arch-rivals faced off in New Orleans. The Saints escaped with an emotional 23-17 victory that set them up nicely for what would go on to be an undefeated September. The team did not taste defeat until mid-October in a last minute loss at New England, beginning the year at 5-0.
Ideally, the Saints would like to get off to a similar, quick start by beating the Falcons in the Georgia Dome. The Saints have won 12 of the last 16 meetings, and won both of last season's meetings. The Falcons, armed with a top-10 pick in next month's NFL Draft, are eager to erase memories of a bitterly disappointing 2013 campaign, in which playoff and Super Bowl aspirations quickly came crashing down after a slew of poor results.
Atlanta returns its core of playmakers featuring Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Steven Jackson and Julio Jones. Gone is Tony Gonzalez, who retired after 17 seasons and 14 Pro Bowl appearances.Matt Ryan and the Falcons look to right the ship in 2014.
Defensively, the Falcons hope to improve across the board, starting up front with an emphasis on re-igniting their pass rush. Hence, the team has been strongly linked with making a move for South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, though it remains to be seen how their draft plans will unfold. The team has 10 draft picks in total, including 6 in the top 150 spots, meaning an influx of young talent is on the way. If veterans like Jones, White and Jackson can stay healthy, which was a major issue for Atlanta last season, the Falcons could be looking at a bounce-back season in 2014 with Tampa Bay in a transition phase and defending division champs Carolina seemingly poised to take a step back following their successful 2013.
This will, in all likelihood, be the Saints' most difficult test in the month of September.
Week 2- @Cleveland
The first of four matchups against the always tough AFC North. New Orleans last visited Cleveland in the 2006 season opener, winning Sean payton's first game as Saints coach en-route to an unforgettable road to the NFC Championship game. This will be the first time since 2007 that the Saints will begin their schedule with two straight road games which is always a difficult hurdle to conquer.
It seems like we say this every other year, but once again, the Browns are beginning a new era under first-year coach Mike Pettine. Several question marks exist across the Browns current roster, particularly at the Quarterback position. Almost fully recovered from an ACL tear, Brian Hoyer should be in the catbird seat to assume the starting position, though drafting a rookie with a top-5 pick could provide some competition.
Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron will give whoever is under center for Cleveland two dynamic playmakers to throw to, while the team returns most of its defense, which finished 2013 ranked 8th against the pass. Pettine, himself a defensive minded coach, will look to help take that unit to the next level while the franchise hopes to finally get it right on the field.
While this will be the 2nd straight road game to start the season, and a tough game on the road in what is always a lively atmosphere in the dog pound, it is a matchup the Saints should fancy taking a win from. Splitting the first two games seems like a reasonable expectation, though going 2-0 would not be an extraordinary feat for a New Orleans team looking to compete for a championship.
Week 3- Minnesota
Home, sweet home. The Vikings' last two trips to the Crescent City have both resulted in tough losses. We all remember the 2009 NFC Championship Game, when the Saints battered Brett Favre and took advantage of multiple Adrian peterson fumbles to advance to the Super Bowl on a late Garrett Hartley field goal, going on to beat Peyton Manning and the Colts on the big stage. Then came the 2010 season opener on a Thursday night, when the Saints once again frustrated the Vikes in a low-scoring 14-9 victory.
Peterson is still running and running hard for Minnesota and will present a tough challenge for Rob Ryan's defense in just the third week of the season. Outside of Peterson, the Vikings' offense remains a work in progress, while the defense had a difficult time against the pass last season, finishing 31st in the rankings.
The Saints will look to feed off their home crowd and hope to win their first of 8 home games. After going 8-0 at home last season, the team will once again look to Who Dat Nation to inspire them to dome field advantage. Minnesota knows all about domes, though this is another game most Saints fans will look to circle as a winnable game.
Week 4- @Dallas
- A trip to Jerry's world. The Saints have dominated this series as of late, winning 8 of the last 9 meetings between the two clubs. Dallas's lone win in that spell was a noteable one, as they spoiled the Saints' quest for a perfect season, winning a Saturday night matchup late in December 2009.
The Saints won last season's Sunday night matchup in New Orleans in resounding fashion, and won on their last trip to Arlington, beating Dallas 34-31 in overtime in week 16 of 2012.Tony Romo hopes to get a win against his friend and former position coach Sean Payton
This year's contest will once again be in primetime, and the Cowboys will be looking to put one over on their former assistant, Sean Payton. Coming off a year in which they were picked apart defensively, Dallas will hope for marked improvement on that side of the ball, similar to what New Orleans experienced under former Cowboys Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan last season. Having released DeMarcus Ware and losing Jason Hatcher to the Redskins via free agency, Dallas will have holes to fill up front and will look for improvement across the back-end of their defense in pass coverage.
Offensively, the Cowboys return much of the same unit that can put up yards and points when healthy and clicking. Former Sean Payton protege Tony Romo is coming off Back surgery, and will look to the likes of Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Terrance Williams through the air. DeMarco Murray returns to spearhead the 'Boys ground game.
This may actually, indeed, turn out to be the make-or-break year for Dallas Head Coach Jason Garrett. The team has found itself on the cusp of playoff qualification the last couple of seasons, only to falter miserably and head for the offseason wondering what could have been. This should be a feisty, back and forth matchup in primetime. Taking into consideration the Saints' offensive chemistry and how early in the season this meeting will occur, New Orleans should like their chances in this one.
After considering these four matchups, 3-1 seems like a reasonable projection. Given the talent, experience, and coaching at the team's dispense, 4-0 is not out of the question, though 3 road games out of 4 to start is a tough ask. We'll go ahead and call it like this...
- @ Atlanta L
- @ Cleveland W
- Minnesota W
- @ Dallas W
Should the team escape September with a winning record, which we feel is more than likely, the Saints will be sitting pretty heading into October. Check back soon for our October preview and predictions.