For Saints, 2016 regular season schedule one of toughest in league; but there's some good news _lowres

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton talks to quarterback Drew Brees before a preseason NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps) ORG XMIT: WIMG105

For the first time in three years, the New Orleans Saints find themselves facing one of the toughest schedules in the NFL.

At least on paper.

The NFL released its 2016 schedule Thursday night, and although the opponents have been known for months, the challenge the Saints are facing becomes obvious with all the games laid out in a row.

New Orleans’ opponents in 2016 posted a combined .547 winning percentage last fall, handing the Saints the fourth-toughest schedule in the NFL. Only the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams face more difficult slates.

The Saints haven’t faced a slate like this the past two years. In 2014, New Orleans’ strength of schedule ranked 23rd in the NFL in the preseason, and the Saints’ 2015 slate was third-easiest.

But the Saints know the schedule is no sure-fire predictor of success. New Orleans finished 7-9 in both of those seasons, all after going to the playoffs against a 2013 schedule that was ranked third-toughest in the league.

This time, the Saints face five teams — the Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals — who made the playoffs in 2015, and all five made it to the divisional round.

Making matters worse, five of the six games against those playoff teams come in a six-week span, a brutal stretch that comes after the bye and ends with a Thursday night tilt in Carolina near the end of November.

The slate doesn’t get much easier the rest of the way. New Orleans also faces an Oakland Raiders team most expect to be a contender for the first time in years, a Los Angeles Rams team with plenty of young talent and division on the rise in the rest of the NFC South.

But despite all of the star-studded names on the docket, the Saints won’t find themselves in the national spotlight very often.

New Orleans is scheduled to play in just two prime-time games, the fewest the Saints have played in since Sean Payton’s first season in 2006. A team with a history of turning in big performances in prime time at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans does get a Monday night tilt against the Falcons, but other than a Thursday night road trip to Carolina, every other game will be played at lunch time in local time.

That’s in part due to the travel. The NFC South is paired with the AFC and NFC West, but the Saints caught a break. Due to road games against Kansas City in the Central time zone and Arizona in Mountain time, New Orleans has to play only two games in Pacific time, keeping the long trips to a minimum despite facing off against the two divisions that are furthest away.

But there is another silver lining among all the big names on the schedule. For the second-straight season, the Saints largely stay away from the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.

Only Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Carolina’s Cam Newton stand out as superstars among the Saints’ opponents, allowing a beleaguered defense to try to bounce back from two bad seasons without having to play the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger.

Drew Brees and the Saints offense, on the other hand, faces a grueling slate. Denver, Carolina, Arizona, Kansas City, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Oakland all have punishing pass rushes, the kind that will put a premium on protection for the Saints’ passing offense.

For all the challenges the 2016 schedule presents, though, Saints fans can take solace in one key fact.

The last time the Saints had a schedule this strong is also the last season that ended in the playoffs.

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Week 1: Oakland (Sept. 11, noon)

Week 2: at New York Giants (Sept. 18, noon)

Week 3: Atlanta (Monday, Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m.)

Week 4: at San Diego (Oct. 2,, 3:25 p.m.)

Week 5: BYE

Week 6: Carolina (Oct. 16, noon)

Week 7: at Kansas City (Oct. 23, noon)

Week 8: Seattle (Oct 30, noon)

Week 9: at San Francisco (Nov. 6, 3:05 p.m.)

Week 10: Denver (Nov. 13, noon)

Week 11: at Carolina (Thursday, Nov. 17, 7:25 p.m.)

Week 12: Los Angeles Rams (Nov. 27, noon)

Week 13: Detroit (Dec. 4, noon)

Week 14: at Tampa Bay (Dec. 11, noon)

Week 15: at Arizone (Dec. 18, 3:05 p.m.)

Week 16: Tampa Bay (Saturday, Dec. 24, noon)

Week 17: at Atlanta (Jan. 1, noon)