After taking a first look at their 2012 schedule, we can say this about the New Orleans Saints. If the Black & Gold are to make the playoffs, they have to get off to a very fast start.
The Saints open the season at home against Washington, and two weeks later, host Kansas City. Both of those are must wins.
It seems almost ridiculous to say that in mid-April. But it is true.
An argument can be made that New Orleans has been handed one of the toughest slates in the NFL. That high bar will only be raised due to the one season suspension of head coach Sean Payton.
The Saints defense under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will be severely tested. New Orleans will play eight games against opposing quarterbacks who were in the top 11 in the league in passer rating.
Barring injury, the Saints will have to defend against Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, San Diego's Philip Rivers, Dallas' Tony Romo, San Francisco's Alex Smith, Atlanta's Matt Ryan (twice), Carolina's Cam Newton (twice) and both Eli and Peyton Manning.
Plus, there's the variable of possible suspensions for key players on the Saints defense. Can you imagine the Saints without multiple key starters at Green Bay September 30?
Now add in the dilemma of playing in arguably the toughest division in the NFL. The rivalry against the Falcons continues to be one of the league's best. Carolina improved greatly in 2011 under their budding star quarterback Newton. Even Tampa Bay, a 4-12 mess in 2011, changed head coaches and spent a fortune in free agency. Tampa's haul included Saints Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks.
Over the six years of the Sean Payton regime, we learned a lot about the quality of the Saints season from the club's September starts.
In 2007, the Saints never could quite recover from an 0-4 start that began with a meltdown in the Thursday night NFL opener at Indianapolis. In that game, Saints cornerback Jason David became a household name in New Orleans for all the wrong reasons as he was continually toasted by Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and wide receiver Reggie Wayne. New Orleans finished 7-9.
One year later in September, Martin Grammatica missed a 43-yard field goal try wide right with 1:55 remaining in a 34-32 at Denver. The Saints finished 8-8.
In 2011, the Saints were an uneven club until midseason.
A 26-20 loss at Tampa, was followed up by a 62-7 win over the Colts.
One week later, the Saints suffered a humiliating defeat, 31-21 at St. Louis. That defeat was a wakeup call. The Saints won their last eight regular season games, and beat Detroit in the wildcard playoffs.
We all know what happened in San Francisco a week later. What may have been the best team in football was upset by the 49ers.
Gregg Williams was barbecued by the fan base and media for employing single coverage on tight end Vernon Davis. With 40 seconds to play, Davis beat safety Malcolm Jenkins in single coverage for a 47-yard reception that led to the winning touchdown.
A 14-yard pass from Alex Smith to Davis with 14 ticks left sent the Saints into the offseason.
And what an offseason it has been. For their alleged roles in the Saints bounty program, Williams and Payton have been iced for the 2012 season by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
What a story it would be. The Saints, without their head coach, become the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl on their home field.
Goodell would have to present the Vince Lombardi Trophy to assistant head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis, who both served lengthy suspensions.
If that indeed happens, the Saints will have achieved the ultimate in this "us against the world" season to come.
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