In 2015, the Saints didn't have a particular hard schedule. They were going up against the woeful AFC South and the struggling NFC East. 2016 is paying them back in kind.
As a reminder, the Saints were slated to face the AFC West and the NFC West. The NFC West, though not as outstanding as they were the last time the Saints faced them, is still full of teams that consistently give the Saints trouble. They were soundly trounced by a talented Arizona team last season, and San Francisco and Seattle always play them tough. And then there's the Rams, who consistently find ways to give the Saints headaches no matter how good or bad they may be that season. It's more or less been that way since Hakim dropped the ball.
On the AFC West side of things, the Broncos are obviously the reigning Super Bowl Champions, but that isn't the only reason that the division poses a problem. Outside of the obvious road trips, the Saints also have to face a Chargers team that underperformed due to injury last year, a Raiders team that has put together a lot of strong pieces, and a Chiefs team that ripped off 11 straight wins to end their regular season last year.
But all of this is known. The schedule itself did the Saints no favors whatsoever. They open the season at home, which is always a bonus that can't be overlooked, but after that it goes downhill. The Saints were rated the 4th most difficult in the NFL, but that's a hard number that doesn't take arbitrary things like bye week location and travel into account, but rather opposing team records.
The Saints will have only one primetime home game this season, which is uncommon, but understandable. The Dome is one of the coolest places to watch a primetime game no matter where you are, but the Saints just haven't seen the success that qualifies a team to play 2 or 3 games at home on the nation's biggest stage. Last year's meaningless Monday Night Football game against the Lions likely set off some flags for the NFL. The game that the Saints DO have, however, is huge, and likely the exact one that Saints' fans would want if they could choose. It's against the Atlanta Falcons, 10 years and a day after Steve Gleason welcomed the Falcons back to the Dome in the most incredible way imaginable. Should they lose that game, it would be demoralizing, but bias aside it feels unlikely.
So the Saints open the season at home against the Raiders, travel to New York to face Eli and the Giants, and then head back to New Orleans for that huge game against the Falcons. After going to San Diego for Drew Brees to play his first game in San Diego as a visitor, the Saints will have their bye week. Early bye weeks are never good, since it's still early in the year and players generally aren't too banged up yet. An extra week of rest can be invaluable later in the year, when players are worn down and looking for any sort of rest.
With that being said, the bye also comes before the Saints play the Panthers at home. There couldn't be a better team to come off of that bye against, because Carolina is very likely the strongest team on the Saints' schedule next year, and just a split would be huge for New Orleans. They were one of the few teams that were able to match Carolina blow for blow last year, falling just short in both their games (one of which, of course, Drew Brees didn't even play in). After Carolina, the Saints travel to Kansas City. It's good that one of the Saints' road West games is against KC, since it minimizes travel a bit. After KC the Saints have Seattle at home, followed by San Francisco in San Francisco. Both of these games have a bit of a grudge match feel to them, since Seattle has had the Saints' number since 2010 and San Francisco barely edged New Orleans out last time they played. That and the bad blood harbored between Saints and 49ers fans makes that game no walkabout, despite SF's struggles.
After those two games, the Saints face two brutal challenges with both Super Bowl teams back to back. They play Denver at home and Carolina on the road in Thursday Night Football. That Carolina game looks almost insurmountable, as Denver is sure to stretch the Saints' offense to its physical limits with their ridiculous pass rush. Perhaps it's karmic retribution for playing Carolina on a bye earlier in the year.
Afterwards, the Saints have their only "homestand," playing two games at home against the Los Angeles Rams and the Detroit Lions. They then travel to Tampa Bay and Arizona on their only "road trip." Except for these four games, the Saints' entire schedule alternates between home & away.
The Saints then round out the season with two divisional games, as Tampa Bay will come to visit and then the Saints will close out their season in the final game in the Georgia Dome, looking to play spoiler to Atlanta's going away party.
It's too early to make any kind of prediction as to record or individual games, but this is the most difficult schedule I've seen in some time. There isn't a single easy win to be found there, and every team is either an upstart, performed well last year, or inexplicably plays the Saints tougher than they play anyone else (that one is specifically directed at LA). If 2016 turns out to be special, the Saints will have earned their keep, to be sure. Perhaps it's the critic in me, and I'm not giving the Saints enough credit, but to compete the Saints have to beat the competitors.