Underhill: Biggest hurdle in New Orleans Saints 2016 regular season schedule? Team must start fast _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--New Orleans Saints running back Tim Hightower (34) celebrates a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars next New Orleans Saints wide receiver Willie Snead (83), New Orleans Saints offensive guard Tim Lelito (68), and New Orleans Saints guard Senio Kelemete (65) in the Superdome in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015.

Something has to give this season.

The Saints can’t come out of the gates, stub their toe, stumble through the first quarter of the season and fall into a losing record.

This time, if another 7-9 finish is to be avoided, something has to change at the start of the season. New Orleans needs to win games, and the schedule sets up for that outcome to occur.

The Saints open up at home against the Oakland Raiders, go on the road against the New York Giants, host the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football, and then close out the first quarter of the schedule on the road against the San Diego Chargers.

None of those teams made the playoffs last year. Most of those teams make up the softer portion of a schedule that also includes dates against the likes of the Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers.

Considering the Saints’ have the fourth-most difficult schedule in the league based on last year’s records, those four are better than some of the other combinations. At the very least, on paper, those are all winnable games.

The Saints twice beat the Falcons last year and dropped the Giants in one of the most thrilling games of the season. Oakland, which has been loading up in free agency this offseason and could be improved next season, finished 7-9 last season. The Chargers were 4-12.

Looking at subplots, we’re going to find out very quickly what kind of growth Delvin Breaux has made since his rookie season. The cornerback could end up matching up with Oakland’s Amari Cooper, New York’s Odell Beckham Jr. and Atlanta’s Julio Jones during the first three weeks of the season.

Breaux did well against Jones last season, but he struggled a bit against Beckham. If he performs well during that stretch, he could very well have his name entrenched among the top cornerbacks by the Week 5’s bye.

This isn’t the deepest analysis, and borders on the obvious, but the Saints’ best chance of making the playoffs will come if they can get through that first stretch with a winning record. It won’t be easy, but things get a lot more difficult after the open week with games against Carolina, Kansas City, Seattle, San Francisco, Denver and Carolina again.

Oakland isn’t unbeatable, but before seeing what happens in the draft, that looks like the toughest game of the four — home or not.

The Saints have been flawed in multiple ways the past two seasons, so it would be too simplistic to point to the slow starts that have plagued this team as the culprit for the sub-.500 finishes. New Orleans had a late stretch last season where it dropped four games in a row. In 2014, it lost three in a row during November.

But it’s fair to wonder if things would have been different in each season if the team didn’t get off to a 1-3 start. It sets a tone and a mentality. It creates a situation where it becomes difficult to absorb any letdowns later in the year.

That has to change.

A lot has to change.

You might notice that this organization, which was once very much a prime-time team, is now only being given little more than the games it is required to receive. The Atlanta game is one. The other is a Thursday night game against the Panthers. That’s it.

The league and the networks no longer see this organization as a premier draw. Considering the team is coming off consecutive 7-9 finishes, that seems about right. This is how things will continue to exist fortunes change.

That has to start at the front of the schedule.

It won’t be easy. The Raiders, with quarterback Derek Carr and an improving defense, are going to be a difficult test for New Orleans. The Falcons are never an easy game, and the Giants are a team that hung 49 points on this defense last season.

Maybe if this team comes out of the front stretch and gets off to a hot start, it will provide some moments, and they’ll get flexed into some prime-time spots. But that should be the least of the concerns.

Every game counts and this schedule is difficult enough that a slow start might be hard — if not impossible — to overcome.

New Orleans needs to win the games it can win, and there are enough winnable games at the start of this schedule that 1-3 shouldn’t happen again.