Payton definitely proved that having the right coach matters. New Orleans looked lost two years ago when he sat out, going 7-9 and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The Saints started last year 5-0 with Payton back before losing a Week 6 thriller at New England when Tom Brady led a very improbable final-minute rally for the Pats. If New Orleans had gotten the NFC's top seed, it might have reached the Super Bowl because the Saints were dominant at home but mediocre on the road. Any chance at that top seed was lost with defeats at St. Louis and Carolina in Weeks 15-16. New Orleans was an underdog for a wild-card round game at Philadelphia but upset the Eagles on a wintry night 26-24 on Shayne Graham's 32-yard field goal at the gun. It was the first-ever road playoff win for the Saints. The season ended the next week in Seattle, 23-15.
While the New Orleans' offense was typically terrific, with Drew Brees throwing for 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns, the defense was a huge surprise under new coordinator Rob Ryan. That group finished fourth in yards allowed and No. 5 in points (19.0 per game). The previous year, when Ryan was in Dallas, the Saints allowed an NFL-record 7,042 yards and were 31st in points given up (28.4 per game).
Key Offseason Moves
The biggest potential free agent New Orleans had was record-setting tight end Jimmy Graham, but the team slapped the franchise tag on him. The offense lost tackle Charles Brown, center Brian De La Puente and receiver Lance Moore (37 catches, 457 yards, two TDs) to other teams. The defense took a hit with safeties Harper (39 tackles) and Malcolm Jenkins (68 tackles, two interceptions) moving on. Adversly, New Orleans reloaded their team by signing perhaps the top free agent safety in Buffalo, Jairus Byrd as well as veteran cornerback Champ Bailey. He was limited to only five games last season due to injury and will be 36; so it's questionable whether the 12-time Pro Bowler and likely future Hall of Famer has much left.
2014 Schedule (all times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, at Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, at Dallas, 8:30 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 6: BYE
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, at Detroit, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Green Bay, 8:30 p.m.
Week 9: Thursday, Oct. 30, at Carolina, 8:25 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, San Francisco, 1 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Monday, Nov. 24, Baltimore, 8:30 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Monday, Dec. 15, at Chicago, 8:30 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
New Orleans has a schedule that ranks as tied for the eighth easiest in the NFL with an opponents' 2013 winning percentage of .469. It has five games against playoff teams.
The Saints will open the season against Atlanta for the second straight year and they are 1-point underdogs for consideration in your NFL picks. In the 2013 opener in New Orleans, the Saints won 23-17 when Matt Ryan's pass into the end zone on fourth down in the final minute was intercepted by Roman Harper. The Saints also won 17-13 in Atlanta in Week 12. New Orleans has won 13 of the past 16 meetings.
There is no reason why New Orleans can't be 5-0 heading into its BYE with no games against playoff clubs. The Falcons, Browns, Vikings and Bucs were four of the league's worst teams a season ago. New Orleans also swept Tampa Bay. Dallas could be decent, but the Cowboys were crushed 49-17 in the Superdome in Week 10 of last year. That was the game in which New Orleans set an NFL record with 40 first downs.
The first game post-BYE against Detroit should be a shootout against Matthew Stafford and Co., but at least it's in a dome where Brees almost always plays better than outdoors. The schedule gets markedly tougher starting Week 8 against the Packers. The good news is the Green Bay game is a home night game for the Saints. They have won an incredible 13 consecutive home night games by an average score of nearly 20 points dating back to 2008. New Orleans doesn't lose to anyone at home under Payton. It hasn't since 2010, throwing out his suspended 2012 season.
The Saints and Panthers split last year, with New Orleans routing the Panthers at the Superdome and losing 17-13 in Charlotte Week 16, which essentially was the NFC South title game. Carolina handed the 49ers their final regular-season loss in 2013 with a 23-20 home win Week 11. The Saints also faced the Bears last year, taking a 26-18 victory in Chicago Week 5. The weather figures to be a major factor for this year's game that late in the year at Soldier Field. Brees largely hasn't been nearly as good in outdoor cold weather games.
NFL free picks: 'Over' 9.5 wins. New Orleans is a different animal at home and should be favored to win every game there again. If that happens, the Saints would thus only need two more wins to top 9.5. The road schedule doesn't look all that tough. They win the division for the first time since 2011.