If the New Orleans Saints follow my blueprint for success this season, they will be hosting the NFC Championship game for a second consecutive year.
It reads like this:
▪ They must go at least 6-2 inside the NFC South.
▪ They must go at least 6-2 outside the division, In an idyllic world that would include all-important road victories against the Los Angeles Rams and Chicago Bears in Weeks 2 and 7, respectively, and the Dallas Cowboys at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in Week 4.
▪ If those two objectives are met, the Black and Gold will finish no worse than 12-4, win their third consecutive division crown, clinch homefield advantage in the NFC and put them in the driver’s seat to reach Super Bowl LIV.
In the words of Super Bowl III hero and Medicare spokesman, Joe Namath, I GUARANTEE IT!
Of course, anything can happen but 12-4 should be enough to keep other serious NFC contenders at bay, most notably the Rams, Bears and Cowboys, and all the other pretenders as well, such as Carolina, Atlanta, Minnesota, Green Bay and Seattle.
The first quarter of the schedule is pivotal. A 4-0 start against Houston, the Rams, Seahawks and Cowboys would make the Saints the team to catch in the NFC. A 3-1 start would still be successful, as long as they beat the Rams.
To my way of thinking, Week 2 against the Rams in LA-LA Land is a must win for the Saints. No ifs, ands or buts about it!
Without further adieu: The crystal ball, please.
WEEK 1: HOUSTON (Sept. 9, 6:10 p.m., ESPN) — No Lamar Miller. No Jadeveon Clowney. No way, no how! Houston, you have problems! Opening night in the Big Easy on a national stage is a stunning success.
SAINTS 30, Texans 13.
WEEK 2: @ LA RAMS (Sept. 15, 3:25 p.m.) — Winner of this game takes the lead in the season-long race to claim NFC homefield advantage. Referees, mercifully, do their jobs and let the teams decide the outcome.
SAINTS, 27, Rams 23.
WEEK 3: @ SEATTLE (Sept. 22, 3:25 p.m.) — Saints remain on the West Coast after the game. Coach Sean Payton conducts week-long practices at the University of Washington and the well-acclimated Saints take care of business, beating the “12th Man’‘ and the home team.
SAINTS 33, Seahawks 20.
WEEK 4: DALLAS (Sept. 29, 7:20 p.m., NBC) — I suspect Ezekiel Elliott will be back in the fold by this playing date but the Saints still avenge last season’s troubling road loss in Big D and put an exclamation point on the challenging first quarter of their schedule.
SAINTS 26, Cowboys 17.
WEEK 5: TAMPA BAY (Oct. 6, noon) — Last season, the Bucs handed the Saints a shocking 48-40 season-opening loss in the Superdome as bearded QB Ryan Fitz-Magic wielded a hot hand. No such luck with Jameis Winston back under center for first-year coach Bruce Arians. The Saints move to 5-0.
SAINTS 31, Bucs 20.
WEEK 6: @ JACKSONVILLE (Oct. 13, noon) — Payton exchanges pre-game pleasantries and a post-game handshake with former pupil, Jaguars coach Doug Marrone, who gets schooled by his former teacher. Saints stay unbeaten at 6-0.
SAINTS 38, Jags 17
WEEK 7: @ CHICAGO (Oct. 20, 3:25 p.m.) -- Drew Brees struggles on the road against a stout Bears’ defense and suffer first loss as Chicago GM Ryan Pace evens his record to 1-1 against his mentor, Saints GM Mickey Loomis
Bears 24, SAINTS 20.
WEEK 8: ARIZONA (Oct. 27, noon) — Cardinals’ rookie coach Kliff Kingsbury and rookie quarterback Kyler Murray show their youthful inexperience and are no match for grizzled veterans Payton and Brees.
SAINTS 45, Birds of Prey 20
WEEK 10: ATLANTA (Nov. 10, noon) — Brees throws four TD passes, the last coming as time expired at the end of an improbable three-play, 99-yard drive, and surpasses Peyton Manning for most scoring passes in NFL history. Just one more record for No. 9.
SAINTS 45, Falcons 42
WEEK 11: @ TAMPA BAY (Nov. 17, noon) — In a driving rainstorm, Brees and the Saints’ offense gets bogged down and the Bucs pull off the upset.
Bucs, 24, Saints 20.
WEEK 12: CAROLINA (Nov. 24, noon) — Brees outduels Cam Newton, Alvin Kamara goes wild with 233 yards from scrimmage and Michael Thomas snares 15 passes for 201 yards and three TDs as the Saints extend their lead to three games over the Panthers in the NFC South.
SAINTS 34, Panthers 25.
WEEK 13: @ ATLANTA (Nov. 28, Thanksgiving, 7:20 p.m., NBC) — The Falcons and the pitch-and-catch team of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones use a national stage on the best night of the football season to gain a measure of revenge from a crushing earlier loss.
Falcons 31, SAINTS 27
WEEK 14: SAN FRANCISCO (Dec. 8, noon) — Odds are injury-prone QB Jimmy Garappolo will not be under center at this stage of the season, sending the 49ers into the Superdome less than full strength. That’s a recipe for disaster.
SAINTS 51, 49ers 24.
WEEK 15: INDIANAPOLIS (Dec. 16, 7:15 p.m., ESPN) — This was supposed to be Andrew Luck vs. Drew Brees when NFL schedule-makers slotted this for prime time Monday Night Football. Well, Brees delivered but Colts QB Jacoby Brissett doesn’t. Saints lock up NFC homefield advantage.
SAINTS 38, Colts 27.
WEEK 16: @ TENNESSEE (Dec. 22, noon) — Titans are in the throes of a titanic divisional battle with the Texans and Colts in the AFC South and outplay the uninspired Saints three days before Christmas.
Titans 26, SAINTS 24.
WEEK 17: @ CAROLINA (Dec. 29, noon) — Payton sits Brees in preparation for the playoffs but Saints keep rolling as backup QB and pending free agent Teddy Bridgewater shows he can still be an effective starter.
SAINTS 27, Panthers 19.
FINAL TALLY: Saints finish 12-4, win the NFC South and beat out the Rams, Bears and Cowboys to capture NFC homefield advantage.