After qualifying to the postseason three times and appearing in the divisional round twice since winning Super Bowl XLIV a little more than four years ago, it was virtually a foregone conclusion that the New Orleans Saints would get their fair share of primetime games in 2014.
The NFL’s schedule makers did not disappoint, revealing Wednesday that they had given the Black and Gold at least five primetime games this season, which is more than usual.
The Saints had gotten four primetime regular-season games at the beginning of each of the campaigns from 2010 to 2013. In 2011 and last year, the NFL added a fifth regular-season primetime game via flex scheduling.
But the number of primetime games was only part of the intrigue leading up to Wednesday for those who follow the Saints. The team also learned precisely what kind of waters they’d need to navigate to reach the playoffs for a fourth occasion in five years and chase the franchise’s second Super Bowl trophy.
In their first seven games, the Saints (11-5 last year) will face teams that failed to win more than half their regular-season contests in 2013. They’ll visit Atlanta and Cleveland (both 4-12) in weeks 1 and 2, respectively.
They’ll host Minnesota (5-10-1) in Week 3 before traveling to their first primetime game in Dallas (8-8) on Sunday Night Football in Week 4. The Dallas game marks the third on the road during the first four weeks of the schedule.
The Saints will host divisional rival Tampa Bay (4-12) in Week 5; rest Week 6; visit Detroit (7-9) in Week 7; and host Green Bay (8-7-1) during their second primetime game on Sunday Night Football in Week 8.
Green Bay is the only one of the aforementioned teams who made the playoffs last year, and they kick off what on paper Wednesday night seemed to be the most unforgiving stretch of the campaign. Starting with the Packers, the reigning NFC North champions, the Saints play all four of their 2014 opponents who made the postseason last year in consecutive weeks.
After Green Bay, the Saints head to the reigning champions of New Orleans’ division, Carolina (12-4 to win the NFC South). They’ll do so on short rest for a Week 9 Thursday Night Football contest, their third primetime game of the season.
They then host NFC runner-up San Francisco (12-4, who like New Orleans was a wildcard playoff team last year) in Week 10 and Cincinnati (11-5, reigning AFC North champions) in Week 11.
At least the Saints play three of those four match-ups at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where they have not lost a game with coach Sean Payton on the sideline since the end of the 2010 season.
The Saints will return to the Superdome for a rare third consecutive home game to face Baltimore (8-8) on Monday Night Football in Week 12, their fourth primetime contest.
Their fifth primetime contest will be on Monday Night Football at Chicago (8-8) in Week 15 on Dec. 15. Under Payton, the Saints are 1-3 in Chicago (including the 2006 NFC Championship Game), but all three losses have come in either December or January.
Another game the Saints will likely have to play in cold weather is in Week 13 at Pittsburgh (8-8) on Nov. 30. It’s possible a Week 17 game in Tampa Bay will be cold.
The Saints’ remaining games are each at home against divisional rivals: Carolina in Week 14 and Atlanta in Week 16.
In terms of strength of schedule, the Saints’ slate of opponents is supposed to be tied for the 23rd most difficult out of 32. The combined regular-season record of their opponents was 119-135-2 for a winning percentage of .469.
Nonetheless, four of the teams the Saints are facing in the regular season are trying to rebuild their identities after hiring new coaches: Tampa Bay, under Lovie Smith after Greg Schiano’s dismissal; Detroit, under Jim Caldwell after Jim Schwartz was fired; Minnesota, under Mike Zimmer after Leslie Frazier was fired; and Cleveland, under Mike Pettine after Rob Chudzinski was fired.
That’s one reason why Payton doesn’t put too much stock in strength of schedule, he said before the official release of the calendar Wednesday.
“There’s so much that takes place during the course of a year with regard to teams that get better, some teams don’t do as well, injuries,” Payton said. “Look, you try not to focus on things you have zero control over.”
There will be an abundance of storylines centering around players -- and one coach -- meeting their former teams in Saints games next year.
Safety Roman Harper joined Carolina in free agency after he was released in February by the Saints, with whom he had played eight seasons. Wide receiver Lance Moore went to Pittsburgh after he was released in March by the Saints, whom he had been a member of since 2005.
Fullback Erik Lorig came to New Orleans in free agency after spending his first four NFL seasons in Tampa Bay. Tom Johnson signed with Minnesota in free agency after being a backup defensive lineman for the Saints for the past three seasons.
Chicago is now home to Brian de la Puente, who left in free agency in early April after three seasons as the Saints’ starting center.
But the biggie is Detroit.
That team now employs the following former Saints: Reggie Bush, running back from 2006 to 2010; Joique Bell, running back in 2010 and 2011; Jed Collins, fullback from 2011 to 2013 before being replaced by Lorig; Isa Abdul-Quddus, backup safety from 2011 to 2013; and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, quarterbacks coach from 2009 to 2013.