After the dust settles around free agency, the first real step in predicting how a team is going to fare in the next season comes with the schedule release. It finally puts a face on the opposing teams, and despite knowing who they're playing in the next year, the order is equally important. The NFL finally has that order, and with the 2015 schedule finally set it's possible to have impressions on how the team will do next year. Of course, those impressions are highly susceptible to change after the draft, but as of now knee jerk reactions are all that we have. Here are a few of the more notable games from the Saints' 2015 season.
Week 1 - @ Cardinals
This is a strange opener, and it marks the first time in three years that the Saints haven't faced the Atlanta Falcons in their opener. The Cardinals are coming off of an impressive season that was, unfortunately, marred by injuries before they lost to the Panthers in a truly atrocious display of football, which is all anyone remembers (unfair, but that's how the league works). The Cards should have Carson Palmer back next season, and he was a lynchpin in their 2014 offense. New defensive coordinator James Bettcher is a bit of a Wild Card after the departure of Todd Bowles, but the Cardinals still have strong defensive personnel such as LSU grads Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu in the secondary to supplant their aggressive front seven (even with the departure of long-time star Darnell Dockett). This will be a difficult game for the Saints, as they don't match up particularly well with AZ as either team stands, but it's incredibly important for them to win their opener so as to prove that this season is different from the last.
Week 4 - Cowboys
The Saints playing the Cowboys in primetime is becoming a tradition of sorts, and the Cowboys wreaked revenge on the Saints by stomping them last season after the Saints eviscerated them in 2013. The Cowboys lost a key piece of their team in Demarco Murray, but in today's NFL running backs are so incredibly expendable that it's hard to think that they're going to suffer a huge dropoff in 2015, especially with Tony Romo at the helm with his monstrous offensive line. The Cowboys are still a tough, physical team that have a great deal of talent, and if Sean Lee isn't out for the season by Week 4 (which actually seems unlikely) then their defense will have improved. Saints fans will remember that they didn't run away in the 2013 game until Lee suffered a season ending injury early in that game, and he didn't even play in 2014. This game will need to be the one that reestablishes the Primetime Dome as a place to be reckoned with, and it couldn't come against a better team.
Week 6 - Falcons
In a Thursday Night matchup, there are a lot of factors to take into consideration. The shortened week, bumps and bruises that may have needed a few more days to heal and the cost on time to strategize stand among those. The Saints will be hosting the Falcons for their annual Thursday Night matchup, and this year it is huge that they beat them. There is a theme to the Saints' 2015 Season: Revenge. The Falcons swept the Saints last season, the second of their wins bouncing the Saints from the playoffs for good in a ridiculous year of football. Every game against the Falcons is a must-win game, but in the Payton era it hasn't been much of a problem. The Saints need to beat the Falcons this year to gain their edge back, and with new Head Coach Dan Quinn at the helm, they're going to be facing a significantly more physical and tough Falcon team than they did with Mike Smith at the helm. This game will very likely be a bloodbath, and the Saints need to get this win early in the season so as to show that they can beat the new looks teams in the division (no disrespect to the Week 3 matchup against the reigning two time division champion Panthers, they just aren't the Falcons).
Week 11 - BYE
The location of the BYE week is always important, and it's nice to have one after Week 10. That's all there really is to say about that.
Week 13 - Panthers
This could, potentially, be the biggest divisional matchup that the Saints have this season depending on how well the Falcons acclimate to their new system. As we all know, every home game is important, especially when home field advantage lies in the Superdome (last year notwithstanding). The Panthers are going to come out as physical and as brutal as ever, and after being embarrassed in the Dome last year by Carolina, the Saints need to show that they own their turf again. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis will, as always, be terrors on the defensive side of the ball, but Cam Newton has struggled in recent years against the Saints, and if that trend continues they still have a chance. The Panthers have won the division the last two seasons and they're bringing back a great deal of talent, but the Saints have brought in some new faces to counter that talent. Depending on how Carolina does in the draft, the Saints may be facing a similar team to last year, only without DeAngelo Williams who gouges their defense every year anyways.
Week 15 - Lions
Remember that revenge theme? Well this is the third and final home primetime game that the Saints have next year, and they need to destroy the Lions this season. After suffering perhaps the most heartbreaking loss outside of their division to Detroit last year, the Saints need to make this game count. By that I mean this needs to a point in the season where they're playing for something (this is a Monday Night game so it won't be flexed). The Lions lost Ndomakung Suh and Nick Fairley, but they traded for former Ravens NT Haloti Ngata to replace the former. Now, Ngata absolutely terrorized the Saints in Monday Night Football, and with him in a new defense that places more emphasis on the line than the linebackers there's no reason to think that he won't be a very difficult force to deal with next season. This could be the game where they prove that the 2014 Dome was an anomaly, especially if they're able to beat Dallas and Atlanta earlier in the year. Detroit is still a strong team, even with the loss of their premier tackle, and expect them to be in the mix at this point next year.
Week 17 - @ Falcons
This is mostly because, as stated above, every Falcons game matters. This could be a division deciding game, which is why it's placed at Week 17, and that in and of itself makes it instinctive to consider it an important one.
All in all, it's very hard to make predictions for what games will matter late in the season. It all depends on the variables of how the Saints and other teams pan out. Of course every divisional game matters, but it's extremely difficult to predict which ones matter in the context of playoff pictures. There are very few teams in the NFC next year that can be assured to be in the playoff hunt, but the NFC South will, as always, be a dogfight. Additions such as Brandon Browner were made to counter the trees that teams in the South call receivers, and his physicality should make life difficult for the Julio Jones, Kelvin Benjamins and Mike Evans of the league. Playing the AFC South is also a bit helpful, as it is a division that has struggled in recent years. The Colts will be a tough matchup and the Texans, as always, are an enigma, but it's certainly better than the AFC North last year, which ended up being arguably the toughest division in football. The Saints need to make this year count, and they have the opportunity to get revenge on a lot of teams. This season doesn't need to be based on bulletin board material, it will need to be based on results. There's no question that Sean Payton knows as much, and it will interesting to see how the Saints bounce back in 2015.
*Note: Updated reactions coming post draft.
**Double Note: No disrespect to any teams not listed. This is a personal list of games that jumped out to me.