Sports

New Orleans improves, but will it be enough to make the postseason?

Brian Allee-Walsh
Brian Allee-Walsh Kathy Anderson Photography

NEW ORLEANS

So many storylines, so many questions surrounding the New Orleans Saints’ 2017 season and so many ways to read my crystal ball over a 16-game season.

Do they eclipse seven wins for the first time since 2013?

Do they reach the playoffs for the first time since losing at Seattle in the divisional round of the ’13 season?

Do they win the NFC South for the first time since 2011?

Does the defense under coordinator Dennis Allen return to respectability after yielding points and yards in alarming fashion?

Is this quarterback Drew Brees’ swan song in the Big Easy?

If the Saints don’t reach their potential, if they don’t make the playoffs, does Coach Sean Payton bid a fond adieu as has been speculated the past few seasons? Would owner Tom Benson dare fire Payton with three years and $27 million remaining on his contract?

Time will tell.

GAME 1

Sept. 11: at Minnesota Vikings, 6:10 p.m., ESPN: Even though Adrian Peterson is with a new team, it still may feel like a home game for “All Day’’ since his Saints jersey was the leading jersey seller in Minnesota during the offseason. Peterson delivers ALL GAME, running his old team and Vikings’ rookie counterpart Dalvin Cook into the ground on Monday Night Football. The Saints eclipse the .500 mark for the first time since the 2013 season. Prediction: Saints 23-17

GAME 2

Sept. 17: New England Patriots, noon, CBS: The well-rested defending Super Bowl champions opened the season on Sept. 7, meaning they will face a Saints squad that is coming off a short work week. Albeit, the Black and Gold will be fueled by a jazzed-up sellout crowd for their home opener in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome but it won’t be enough. This game could be the final encounter between 40-year-old Tom Brady and 38-year-old Drew Brees. In the Pats’ last visit to New Orleans in Week 12 of the 2009 season, the Saints prevailed 38-17 in primetime en-route to winning Super Bowl XLIV. Bill Belichick threw in the towel midway through the fourth quarter, pulling Brady in favor of Brian Hoyer. Prediction: Patriots 30-26

GAME 3

Sept. 24: at Carolina Panthers, noon, FOX: By this time, we should know where the Panthers are in their rebuild from last season, the health of quarterback Cam Newton and if the defense still has bite when these NFC South foes collide at Bank of America Stadium. It marks the return of former Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and linebacker A.J. Klein to their old stomping grounds, plus the Saints will get their first look at versatile rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. Prediction: Panthers 24-20

GAME 4

Oct. 1: vs. Miami Dolphins, London, England, 8:30 a.m., FOX: The Saints will depart immediately for merry ol’ England after the Carolina game and cross the pond for this interconference game. The Saints last played at Wembley Stadium in Week 8 of the 2008 season when they outlasted San Diego 37-32. Afterward, Saints coach Sean Payton cut kicker Taylor Mehlhaff and punter Ben Graham, who had been signed the week of the game to replace Steve Weatherford. New team but same old Jay Cutler who came out retirement to play for the Fish. Prediction: Saints 34-19

GAME 5

Oct. 15: Detroit Lions, noon, FOX: The surprising 2-2 Saints return to the field after a bye week. The last time these teams met came on a national stage in Week 15 of the 2015 season at the Superdome. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford nearly pitched a perfect game, completing 22 of 25 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns for a gaudy 148.6 passer rating en route to a 34-27 win. Brees wins this time around. Prediction: Saints 34-27

GAME 6

Oct. 22: at Green Bay Packers, noon, FOX: Saints fullback Jon Kuhn makes first appearance at Lambeau Field against his former team, and yes, those are boos raining down on him from the stands and not the familiar chants of “Kuhn ... Kuhn ... Kuhn.’’ Kuhn scores twice and each time fans prevent him from completing the traditional Lambeau Leap into the stands after a touchdown. Prediction: Packers 33-23

GAME 7

Oct. 29: Chicago Bears, noon, FOX:

When the schedule came out in April, this is one game Who Dat Nation probably circled in the win department. And with good reason. It’s just hard to take Da Bears seriously, whether it was Jay Cutler under center or now with former Tampa Bay starter/backup Mike Glennon at quarterback. The Saints should win in a cakewalk and move on down the road. The question remains is how long can Payton’s buddy John Fox hang on in the Windy City. Prediction: Saints 40-17

GAME 8

Nov. 5: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, noon, FOX: If the Saints reach this point of the season at 4-3 as I have predicted, this game looms as a proverbial fork in the road. A win at home against the Bucs here could snowball into something special with upcoming winnable games against Buffalo, Washington and the LA Rams on deck. These are not your grandfather’s Buccaneers, not with a top-10 caliber defense and an offense that features quarterback Jameis Winston and receivers Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and rookie tight end O.J. Howard, among others. Prediction: Bucs 23-22

GAME 9

Nov. 12: at Buffalo Bills, noon, FOX: The .500 Saints shuffle off to Buffalo to face a Bills team in a total rebuild under rookie head coach Sean McDermott, the former defensive coordinator at Carolina. Saints last played here in 2009, winning 27-7 en route to claiming the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLIV. Once known as Rich Stadium and later Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Bills’ home field now answers to New Era Field, a.k.a. as “The Cap.’’ Saints have won four straight in the series, last losing in 1998. Prediction: Saints 30-17

GAME 10

Nov. 19: Washington Redskins, noon, FOX: It’s a rarity when a NFL game features two starting quarterbacks playing in a contract year. But that’s the case here with Kirk Cousins and Drew Brees. Cousins counts approximately $24 million against the cap; Brees $19 million. Cousins spurned attempts by team officials to sign a long-term contract and is playing under a franchise tag for a second consecutive season. Brees stands on firmer ground in New Orleans where he is beloved and continues to build his burgeoning legacy. Prediction: Redskins 26-24

GAME 11

Nov. 26: at Los Angeles Rams/3:05 p.m., FOX: Quick: Who coaches the Rams? If you said, 31-year-old Sean McVay, go to the head of the class. He is the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, a true millenial who’s helping this storied franchise try to gain a foothold in La-La Land where 10 pro teams and two Power 5 universities call home. Year 1 in the City of Angels ended with the firing of Jeff Fisher after a 4-12 season. McVay would do well to match Fisher’s win total in Year 2. Prediction: Saints 34-20

GAME 12

Dec. 3: Carolina Panthers, noon, FOX: This marks the first of four key games against divisional opponents in December, a closing stretch that likely will decide the Saints playoff chances. If both teams come in healthy at the quarterback position, then this game promises to be high scoring and may come down to the final possession. The winning team in this series has scored more than 40 points in five of the last six games played in the Superdome. First team to 40 wins. Prediction: Panthers 41-34

GAME 13

Dec. 7: at Atlanta Falcons, 7:25 p.m., NBC: Normally, when the Saints score 32 points and amass nearly 500 yards of offense, they should win, right? Not last season when the Falcons swept the season series by averaging 41.5 ppg and 453.5 ypg en route to winning the NFC South. If the Saints can’t slow down the Matt Ryan express, then the Saints and Drew Brees will find themselves in a primetime shootout to be sure, a game in the mid-30s to lower 40s. Prediction: Falcons 45-40

GAME 14

Dec. 17, New York Jets, noon, CBS: I’m certain the J-E-T-S will show up for the game as scheduled but I’m not sure who their head coach will be at this stage of the season. I’m betting a dollar to a donut that Todd Bowles doesn’t make it through all 16 games, not with his roster, not with Josh McCown, Christian Hackenberg or Bryce Petty under center. They have a better chance of winning the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft — at least being a serious contender for that dubious honor — than finishing anywhere but last in the AFC East. Prediction: Saints 31-10

GAME 15

Dec. 24: Atlanta Falcons, noon, FOX: These NFC South rivals square off again for the second time in 17 days, this time at Mercedes-Benz South in the Big Easy. This game could have playoff implications — if not for both teams, then at least one — and has the potential of being flexed into a late afternoon start on Christmas Eve. Like Game 1 on Dec. 7, this promises to be a wild-and-wooly 60-minute affair. Maybe longer. Prediction: Saints 38-34

GAME 16

Dec. 31: at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, noon, FOX: With so much on the line — the NFC South championship, the playoffs, who knows? — these divisional foes face off outdoors on New Year’s Eve. Tampa Bay hasn’t been to the postseason since 2007; the Saints in 2013. Will the offseason begin on the first day of the New Year for one, both teams or neither? Stay tuned. Prediction: Buccaneers 24-23

Final Record: 8-8.

Bottom Line: Saints snap three-year streak of finishing 7-9, but miss the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year. Time will tell on the fates of Payton and Brees.

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