Ravens Saints Football

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton watches from the sideline in the first half of an NFL football pre-season game against the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)

They say summer is the time for hope and happiness. But in New Orleans, at least the past three years, the only thing summer has led to is the fall of the Saints.

There’s no need to look down the road, to the schedule after Thanksgiving. It doesn’t matter how the bye sets up. If the Saints wants to make sure they aren’t going through a bunch of hypothetical mind exercises to figure out what needs to happen to make the playoffs, the only thing that matters right now is September.

Sometimes the reason has been more obvious than in other years. But here's the reason New Orleans has been stuck in idle at 7-9 the last three years: It hasn’t been able to shift into gear during the first leg of the season. In each of the past three seasons, the Saints started 1-3.

The funny thing, though, is that the fall of the Saints often leads to “The Fall of the Saints.” The team has recovered to post a 3-1 record over its next four games in each of the past three seasons, bringing it to the halfway point with a .500 record.

So, what if September had been different? It would have taken another win to make the playoffs in 2014, three in 2015 and two last year (without considering tie breakers).

It hasn’t been hard to figure out why the Saints have stumbled out of the gate.

The 2014 team had Super Bowl aspirations and dropped the ball.

In 2015, the defense was a mess, and Drew Brees suffered an injury and played through it during the second half of a Week 2 loss to Tampa Bay, then missed a Week 3 loss to Carolina.

Last year, New Orleans lost both of its starting cornerbacks by halftime of Week 2.

Given that history, it seems like in some ways it’s the Saints vs. the Saints as much as it is the Saints against whoever they happen to play during September.

But the opponents have be considered — and in this case, even though strength-of-schedule rankings before the season often prove to meaningless as teams often happen to rise, the schedule makers did New Orleans no favors.

Minnesota. New England. Carolina. Miami in London.

The opening game against the Minnesota Vikings will put New Orleans up against one of the best defenses in the league from a year ago.

In 2016, the Vikings allowed just over 300 yards and 19 points per game. The game is also on the road, which will put the Saints on a short week heading into a Week 2 game against the reigning Super Bowl champions, who will be coming off a Thursday night game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Luckily that game is at home, but playing New England is never easy, regardless of the venue. This game will put the Saints defense to the test. They’ll face a potent offense, which now features Brandin Cooks, and a stingy defense.

The Saints then go on the road to play Carolina, which is always a tough game.

And to wrap things up, the Saints will have to make a long trip to London to face a Miami Dolphins team that made the playoffs last season. Their multitude of weapons will make it a tough test for the Saints defense, let alone the long trip and dealing with a time change.

It’s a tough run, and it will put the Saints to the test. They need to figure out how to get off to a better start. The opponents matter, but that seems internal as much as external this time. And luck will need to play a part, too.

One way or another, New Orleans needs to find a way to come out of this at last 2-2 or better. There are spots in the schedule to make up some ground if they get off to a bad start, but history has shown that it’s a lot easier to start out on the right foot than to catch up later down the line.

Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.​