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5 games that will define the Saints’ 2020 season

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Every game counts, but let’s not pretend some just have a little extra oomph

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints’ 2020 schedule is released, and although there’s a lot up in the air regarding how/when/where the season will be played, in a vacuum it’s an extremely interesting slate. The Saints are going up against the formidable AFC West and NFC North this year, in addition to their 2019 first-place finish in the NFC South giving them games against the 49ers and the Eagles.

The Saints are all-in this year, and after three straight tough playoff losses, it feels like something has to give in 2020. Will they finally break through and win the franchise’s second Super Bowl? Or will the window close on what could well be Drew Brees’ last ride?

There are ultimately five games on the schedule that are going to determine whether the road to Tampa will go through New Orleans in the NFC.

Saints vs. Buccaneers, Week 1

We won’t have to wait long for one of the most anticipated quarterback matchups in the NFL. Drew Brees and the Saints host Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in Week 1 of the season, so Bruce Arians’ guinea pig defense will be New Orleans. It won’t be easy. With an America’s Game of the Week kickoff, the Superdome crowd will undoubtedly be in full-throat trying to disrupt the Bucs offense.

Saints vs. Buccaneers is an early season tradition at this point, but this time it feels different. The Bucs are suddenly being looked at as contenders in the South by virtue of having Brady and Rob Gronkowski. This game is an opportunity for the Saints to send a clear message to the NFC South that they’re still the team to chase.

Saints vs. Packers, Week 3

No one can say that the league doesn’t want people to see this Saints team. This will be New Orleans’ third game in a row on a national stage, and its second straight prime time slot. The Saints will be coming off of a Monday night bout in Vegas, which is a TOUGH recovery when you consider the time zone difference, in addition to just six days’ rest. The Packers are going to be NFC contenders this year, whether they want to give Aaron Rodgers weapons or not.

This game definitely has late-season implications. It’s not out of the question for the Saints to hit tie-breaker scenarios with the Packers, so while this game is by no means a Week 3 must-win, it’s certainly a game they could look at in Week 15 as a what-if. The last time the Saints hosted the Packers, mind you, they won 44-23. The prime time Dome is not a fun place to play, but this is a Packers team that has extremely high expectations.

Saints vs. 49ers, Week 10

This is another game that could have huge playoff implications for the Saints. The defending NFC champion 49ers are retooled and looking to get back to the top of the conference. They’ll have their work cut out for them. The NFC is stacked this year. But they didn’t really lose key contributors from last year.

The Niners have a habit of thwarting the Saints when they happen to be good concurrently. Last year was just the latest example of a shootout that didn’t go the Saints’ way. This year, back in the Dome, they’re seeking a different result. Much like the Packers game, winning this game could determine playoff seedings.

As an aside, it’s entirely possible that the 49ers take a step back this season. However, that’s what was said all of last year and it never happened, so it’s equally likely they come back reloaded.

Saints @ Falcons, Week 13

This game and the 49ers game bookend what might quietly be the infuriating four-game stretch of the Saints’ schedule. The Saints go from two home games against the 49ers and the Falcons to two road games against the Broncos and the Falcons. While the opponents may not seem terribly tough on paper, it’s a lot of travel and two games in three weeks against the Falcons is always hard.

The game brings us into December, the home stretch of the season, and these rivalry games are huge tipping points in a season. If the Saints rest on their laurels, it’s entirely possible that the Falcons steal games from them at a critical point in the year.

This game also kicks off a brutal home stretch of the season against the Eagles (in Philadelphia), the Chiefs, the Vikings and a road game against the Panthers. This is truly the point in the year where every game matters, and the Saints have to handle matters in the division first.

Saints vs. Vikings, Week 16

This isn’t about revenge games or needing to make up for what happened last year (but it is a little bit). It’s just about being the best team in the conference. The Vikings and the Saints always play each other tough, and this matchup has gone from Vikings fans helplessly pining about what could have been in 2009 to a full-blown year-by-year war of attrition.

Saints-Vikings has become an annual showdown, and make no mistake, the Vikings have a Super Bowl window right now. They’re a strong team, and much like the Packers and 49ers game, they could well be jostling for playoff position at this point in the year.

It’s not about whether the Saints CAN beat the Vikings. It’s about beating the best in the conference. If they end up taking two of three from the Packers, 49ers and Vikings, that’s a strong regular season in the NFC.

The Saints should be in the thick of things this season, but they have an absolutely grueling schedule. Every game has the potential to tip the scales on this season. It will definitely be a wake-up call after last year’s comparatively easy regular season.

With that being said, that doesn’t have to be bad news. If the Saints can win these games, they’ll be in great shape for the postseason. These games can ultimately define how the season goes in New Orleans. If it is Brees’ last ride, he couldn’t ask for a more satisfying schedule to go against. He has Brady twice, Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes, the next-in-line to join the quarterback pantheon. But once again, it’s on Brees (and the Saints) to make it his turn once again.