Thursday night the NFL released the entire 2013 regular-season schedule. The Saints were notably given four prime-time games. The team will be featured nationally against the Dolphins in Week 4 at home, Week 10 vs. Dallas, Week 12 at Atlanta and again in Week 13 at Seattle.
Game times, locations and schedule situating plays into the difficulty of the Saints' schedule. The team, of course, knew every opponent it would face prior to Thursday night.
Here is how the difficulty of each contest stacks up, at least from our viewpoint on April 19, a week away from the 2013 NFL draft.
The Saints haven't had a significant thing to play for in Week 17 in the Sean Payton-era. There's a good chance they won't this time around either.
In all likelihood the team's fate will be decided before Christmas. This game will more likely be an opportunity for Drew Brees to either extend another ridiculous passing record, or perhaps give Mark Ingram an opportunity to be the first Saints running back to reach 1,000 yards for a season since Deuce McAllister.
Even so, the Cardinals do have a nice defense. Ray Horton left to become the Browns' defensive coordinator. Still the unit is mostly intact from one of the league's underrated units from 2012.
No quarterback, though, figures to hurt the Cardinals' chance to upset the Saints in the dome.
This game will undoubtedly be billed as "Mentor vs. Protege", or perhaps in reverse order. Either way, Doug Marrone will return to New Orleans to take on Sean Payton, four years after leaving his post as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach to take the job at his alma mater, Syracuse.
Now Marrone is in the NFL, after a sparkling referral from his former boss, Payton. After Marrone took the Bills job Payton was heard praising Marrone, "He's someone I think the players will respond to. I think he's ready...I think he'll do a great job."
Marrone likely will do a great job in Buffalo (someone has to eventually, right?). And he'll know the Saints' offensive scheme better than any other opposing coach has since 2006. Nonetheless, the disparity in talent level between the Saints and Bills ought to be enough to allow the Saints to run away with this ball game.
What is the intrigue for this game from the NFL and ESPN's perspective? There is no Reggie Bush (that would have added intrigue to no end), Ryan Tannehill was the fourth- or fifth-best rookie quarterback in the NFL a season ago.
Mike Wallace, who the team signed away from Pittsburgh this offseason, is from New Orleans. Is that really the hitch?
Anyhow, the Saints and Dolphins will square off under the Mercedes-Benz logo on the final night of September in what promises to be one of the least entertaining contests of ESPN's Monday night schedule.
It is also one of the Saints' easiest games on the schedule.
The Saints will head to New Jersey to take on Rex Ryan and the Jets on November 3. The contest could end up being a cold-weather game. It also could be one of those moderately cool, but not a big issue type contests.
Either way, the Saints will arrive in the Meadowlands with the more talented roster and the more stable Ryan brother. Rob will have his defense flying around the field to make plays by the time this matchup is played.
Rex's tenure as Jets coach will likely be coming to an end because of the quarterback position. And his brother will expose that in this contest. Rex should do whatever he can to get in tight with his brother and Sean Payton.
He could come to New Orleans for a job in 2014.
The last time the Saints played at Tampa this early in the year was 2007 when Jeff Garcia made the Saints look silly in a route that made New Orleans 0-2 just a year removed from an NFC Championship Game appearance.
The Saints may catch a slight break playing this game in the afternoon. Still, everyone and their brother knows the Bucs will require the Saints to don the black tops in hopes that the sun beams cause physical and psychological wear on Sean Payton's team (it's a common ploy that nearly every NFL team uses the first couple weeks of the season).
That ploy may be the only one that will work. With Payton at the helm, the Saints promise to come out firing in the sun. It seems every other year the Saints absolutely explode offensively when playing at Tampa.
They did in 2012, but still had to hold on with a loose grip to clinch the win. This one might not be so close.
In one of the scheduling quirks the NFL always seems to produce, the Saints and Panthers square off in this contest for the second time in three weeks. At least preparation won't be too difficult from a scouting/tendency perspective.
Carolina in December often calls for cool temperatures, but rarely ones that are the equivalent of New England, Chicago or some of the other locales on the Saints' 2013 road schedule. In that sense, the Saints got lucky.
Carolina always plays the Saints tough. That said, it seems the Saints often play better against the Panthers in Charlotte.
And the Saints tend to own their opponents in Week 16.
No NFL regular-season game is a gimme. Two years ago the Saints rolled into St. Louis for a Week 8 contest and got stepped on by a much less talented and complete Rams team.
Thus it is unreasonable to say that this game is an easy win.
But this should be one of the easier contests on an otherwise tricky and difficult 2013 schedule.
The Rams head in to the NFL draft with little offensive skill talent surrounding their alleged "franchise quarterback" Sam Bradford. The team did sign All-Pro offensive tackle Jake Long, hoping Bradford would benefit from more time in the pocket.
Still he has no one to throw the ball to on a regular basis. He lost his top receiver this offseason, Danny Amendola, who signed with New England to replace Wes Welker.
The team also lost Steven Jackson, its long-time superstar workhorse running back. Even if Jeff Fisher is able to get his defense to play over its head, it's nearly unimaginable to think the Rams could keep up with the Saints in this contest.
Then again, we've thought that before.
The Saints get lucky with the Bears contest this season. Since Sean Payton became head coach, the Saints have always played in Chicago in either the months of December or January. Translation: It was cold!
An October 6 meeting with the Bears in Chicago should not be an issue for Payton's team.
The only advantage Chicago has over the Saints in this contest is the home-field advantage. Otherwise, New Orleans should be a favorite in this contest, against a team still learning a new offensive system under first-year head coach Marc Trestman.
In what seems to be a constant back-and-forth revenge matchup, the Cowboys will be looking to get revenge on the Saints after a hard-fought loss in Week 16 at Cowboys Stadium in North Texas.
That this game is on NBC's Sunday Night Football only adds to the intrigue. So, too, does Rob Ryan gaining the chance to show up his most recent former employer on national television.
Be sure Ryan will be fired up to defeat the 'Boys. The Saints will be as an entire team.
The team hasn't hosted many Sunday night games under Sean Payton, but has had great success in front of the NBC crew.
The Saints likely benefit from the October 13 date when this game is played. Two reasons stick out for that.
One, the Patriots often struggle under Bill Belichick from around Weeks 5 to 10. Likely it has something to do with Belichick's evil plotting scheme to underwhelm the rest of the league so they no longer fear his team.
Second, October 13 does not figure to be a date that would coincide with frigid temperatures in Massachusetts. If temperatures reach the 50s, this would be an unseasonably cool day.
Those two factors make this a very winnable contest for New Orleans.
The Falcons-Saints noon central time start on opening weekend will certainly be Fox's national game of the time slot. Falcons-Saints is a great rivalry that nearly every NFL fan appreciates, probably too much (the Saints are 11-3 against Atlanta since 2006).
While Fox benefits from the rivalry angle, neither team does. There's no way either team hoped to open their season against the other. As much as teams try to simulate real football in OTAs, training camp and preseason games, no team is completely ready for Week 1.
It is unfortunate that either team has to play a game that may decide the division in the first week of the 2013 campaign. For that reason, give the advantage to the home team.
This game begins the last quarter of the season, and a string of four consecutive noon start times (though any of those could be flexed up to 12 days before the game).
The Panthers are regularly a thorn in the Saints' side, especially under the lights of the dome.
The Saints must be as prepared, both mentally and schematically, as for any contest on the 2013 schedule. If not, the Panthers will surely pull their regular routine by defeating the Saints in the dome.
The Saints suffered probably their most devastating loss of 2012 at home by the hands of the eventual NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. That makes the 2013 home contest a grudge match of near epic proportions, especially since the original grudge match was supposed to be the Saints' opportunity to avenge the 2011 playoff loss at San Francisco.
As if the NFL just hit copy-and-paste from the 2012 schedule, this matchup is a 3:25 local time contest that leads to the Saints heading to Atlanta on a short week to play the NFL Network Thursday Night Football match.
It's a certainty that San Francisco will again try to knock the wood out of the Saints' hands. Atlanta may again be the primary benefactor. Even if that is true, this game is a must-win for New Orleans, at least psychologically.
After knocking heads with the most physical team in the league, the 49ers, just four days earlier, the Saints have to play a road divisional game. One could make the argument that it isn't fair.
Sean Payton will certainly be using a lot of the "no excuses" talk in the locker room and press room leading up to this one.
At least the team will be motivated by seeing the red and black of the Falcons. Even with the November 29 loss at Atlanta last season, the Saints have lost only three times to the Falcons since Sean Payton became the Saints head coach.
Something about the dirty bird on the helmet gets the Saints going. Still, this promises to be the second most difficult challenge on the Saints' schedule, if only because of the timing of this contest.
The final scheduled prime-time contest on the Saints' 2013 schedule (the NFL can always flex any game in Weeks 10 through 17) is also the first matchup of the Saints and Seahawks since the infamous "Beast Mode" 67-yard touchdown run Marshawn Lynch had on the Saints in the 2010 playoffs.
With Lynch and Russell Wilson leading the Seahawks offense in 2012, the unit became a legitimate threat and complemented a defense that thrives with incredible physicality in the secondary and a relentless nature only spurred to greater heights when playing at home with the "12th Man".
Playing away on Monday Night Football is a difficult task no matter the venue. Seattle may literally be the toughest place to try to pull off a victory. And make no mistake about it, as the two teams enter 2013, Seattle must be considered the better football team.
As we view this contest on April 19, this is by far the toughest matchup on the Saints' schedule.