Though the Saints’ weekly schedule hasn’t been released yet, every NFL team’s 2011 opponents were determined as soon as the 2010 regular season came to an end. Here is how the Saints’ 10 non-divisional games are assigned each season:
- All four teams from one of the other three divisions in the NFC, alternating every year.
- All four teams from one of the other four divisions in the AFC, alternating every year.
- Two NFC games based on the 2010 standings. Because the Saints finished in 2nd place in their division in 2010, they will play the corresponding 2nd place teams from the two NFC divisions that the Saints do not already have on their schedule.
On paper, New Orleans seems to have a much more favorable out-of-division schedule than their fellow NFC South peers. Although it is far too early to make any predictions with absolute confidence, the Saints’ schedule at present appears to have them well positioned to reclaim their place at the top of the division. Here is a breakdown of the team’s 2011 non-divisional opponents.
NFC Division Match-up – NFC North
Schedule – vs. Bears, vs. Lions, @ Vikings, @ Green Bay
Unfortunately, the Saints do not get to play the NFC West every year (although maybe that’s a good thing, considering the team suffered two embarrassing losses in week 5 at Arizona and in the playoffs loss at Seattle). Next season, they face the formidable NFC North, the division that lays claim to both NFC championship game participants. The only game on the Saints’ 2011 schedule that truly scares me comes from this division, as the Saints have to make a trip to Green Bay. The Saints’ other home opponent would be a tough matchup in Chicago, especially if the game came late in the season with a high chance of heavy snow; however, the Saints should be able to handle da Bears in da Dome. As for the team’s two road games – Minnesota won’t be able to make any noise this season unless they can land a new franchise QB, and though the Lions are improving, they are still at least a year away from seriously contending.
Projected record: 3-1
Falcons/Bucs - Atlanta travels to Chicago and Detroit, while the Bucs have road games in Green Bay and Minnesota. Realistically, I see the Falcons finishing 3-1 against this division as well, while the Bucs could finish anywhere from a more likely 2-2 to a less likely 3-1.
AFC Division Match-up – AFC South
Schedule – vs. Texans, vs. Colts, @ Titans, @ Jaguars
This schedule simply could not have gone better for the Saints. New Orleans gets the division’s two most talented teams in the Dome, and travel to two teams trending downward. You can be sure that the Super Bowl XLIV rematch in New Orleans between the Saints and Colts will be nationally televised, and the primetime invincibility theory concerning Peyton Manning has been put to rest after this past season. The Texans have lots of young talent, but there is simply no way Houston’s pass defense can improve enough in one offseason to contain Drew Brees. The two road trips to Jacksonville and Tennessee seem like a cakewalk when compared to the avoided trips to Houston or Indy (although that’s what we all thought about Cleveland and Arizona this season), as both teams seem to have too many holes on both sides of the football to hang with New Orleans. The one thing that keeps me from predicting a clean sweep of this division is the pass-catching ability that these opponents employ out of the backfield (except for the Colts, but when you have Manning running the show, you can beat anyone). The Saints have had problems slowing down two-dimensional RBs, and this division has plenty of those between Chris Johnson, Arian Foster, and Maurice Jones-Drew. I’m going to predict that the loss comes against the Texans in a shoot-out, with a combined score somewhere around 60 points.
Projected record: 3-1
Falcons/Bucs - Atlanta gets hit with a buzzsaw, having to travel to both Houston AND Indianapolis, neither of which will be easy. Though their two home games should be close to guaranteed wins, there is a chance that the Falcons may not be favored in either of these two road games. The Bucs have the same home/away slate as the Saints. I think the Falcons and Bucs both finish with a 3-1 record against this division, though both could easily go 2-2 thanks to a tough road schedule for Atlanta and a young Bucs team which could be more prone to a slip-up.
Final Two Games
Schedule – vs. Giants, @ Rams
The Saints catch another break with these two games. If the schedule had been inversed, the most likely outcome would be a 1-1 finish; however, because New Orleans gets a road game in a dome against an inferior team while hosting the tougher opponent, they should be able to win both of these games. New York went 0-3 on the road against teams over .500 in 2010, getting outscored by an average of over 20 points per game; I expect more of the same in 2011 from a team that hasn’t shown much resiliency since their Super Bowl XLII victory three years ago.
Projected record: 2-0
Falcons/Bucs - Atlanta’s final two games consist of a home matchup against the Eagles and a trip to Seattle. Though in most cases I would prefer to play the tougher team at home, this scenario is much different. As Saints fans learned the hard way, Seattle’s Qwest Field is one of the toughest places in the NFL to play; the place registered a seismic rating on Marshawn Lynch’s touchdown run. If that weren’t enough, the Falcons’ home game will be Michael Vick’s homecoming in the city where his NFL career first exploded; you can be sure he is going to be at the top of his game for that one. I see Atlanta splitting those two games. Tampa Bay hosts the Cowboys and travels to the 49ers. I don’t think anyone expects either of those two teams to play as poorly as last season, meaning the Bucs will have their hands full. They should split those two games, but I wouldn’t be totally shocked at any of the four possible outcomes.
Expected Non-Divisional Records
New Orleans: 8-2
Tampa Bay: 6-4
Though I don’t expect the NFC South to have quite the same success at the top that it had in 2010, the division should still produce three teams records at .500 or better. To sum things up regarding the Saints, there are two main reasons that they should expect to come out of their non-divisional schedule ahead of their fellow NFC South opponents. First, New Orleans will benefit from playing against their tougher opponents at home, while traveling to face the less talented teams. The Saints’ game against the Packers also happens to be their only road game outside of the NFC South against a team with a winning record in 2010. Second, the only possible game in which New Orleans would have to deal with inclement, brutally cold weather is in Green Bay. While I do expect the Saints to lose to the Packers, they should be favored in each of their other nine non-divisional games. As a result, the New Orleans Saints unquestionably have the scheduling edge over the rival Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.