Though NFL players and coaches this week learned on what days and at what times they’d meet their 2014 opponents with the release of the league’s schedule, there’s a lengthy preseason process they’d be unwise to overlook.
The May 8-10 draft, organized team activities, minicamps, training camps and preseason games all stand in the way of the first kickoff of Week 1.
But even Saints quarterback Drew Brees and inside linebacker Curtis Lofton — two of the players most responsible for keeping New Orleans’ locker-room focused on short-term priorities — couldn’t resist casting a glance at what’s in store several months down the road.
Judging from their remarks on national interviews, a regular-season opener in Atlanta as well as a trio of road prime-time games in Dallas, Carolina and at Chicago that were most conspicuous to them.
“We know it’s starting off with a bang,” Brees said to ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd on Thursday, noting that the opener in Atlanta was one of three away games the Saints will play in the first four weeks. “We’re going to find out a lot about ourselves … having to go on the road and win some tough games.”
Thus Brees renewed the time-honored question of whether the Saints are afflicted by any “road woes” when they travel away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Perhaps the most meticulously chronicled storyline during last season was how the Saints, after winning their first two away games, dropped five of the next six as visitors before making the playoffs as a wild card.
They silenced detractors — at least temporarily — by beating the Eagles in Philadelphia in frigid temperatures, claiming the first road playoff win in Saints history in conditions many doubted New Orleans could handle.
But then they were eliminated in rainy, windy weather at Seattle, which went on to win the Super Bowl.
The Saints’ road doldrums — perceived or real — will almost certainly be a dominant storyline early this season. They’ll visit Atlanta, Cleveland and Dallas during Weeks 1 and 4; and they’ll travel for a fourth time to Detroit in Week 7 after the off week.
Though none of those teams managed to win more than half of their games in 2013, Brees in his conversation with Cowherd singled out Atlanta and Dallas as especially challenging.
Nine of the past 12 games between the Saints and the NFC South rival Falcons have been decided by eight points or fewer. While New Orleans is 13-3 against the Falcons — and 6-2 in Atlanta — since Brees became a Saint in 2006, very few of those victories have been easy.
Though Atlanta was 4-12 last season, Brees said the Falcons have had “a ton of success within (the) division here over the last (few) years,” after winning the NFC South twice and making the playoffs four times since coach Mike Smith took over in 2008.
Since 2008, the Saints have won the Super Bowl once, clinched the NFC South twice, and made the playoffs four times.
“It’s a huge game,” Lofton, a defensive captain last year who joined the Saints in 2012 after four seasons in Atlanta, told SiriusXM NFL Radio on Friday. “If you win that game, you’re ahead of the division ... (and) it gives you momentum for the rest of the season.”
As for Dallas, Brees noted that it was a road game on Sunday Night Football.
While no one disputes it’ll be difficult for New Orleans to visit Carolina, the reigning NFC South champions, on short rest for a Week 9 Thursday Night Football matchup, the Saints will be thankful the one game before that and the two after are at the Superdome.
The Saints will face all four of their 2014 opponents who made the postseason last year from Weeks 8 to 11. Aside from playing Carolina, they’ll host Green Bay (the reigning NFC North champions) on Sunday Night Football in Week 8; San Francisco (a 12-4 wild-card team) in Week 10; and Cincinnati (the reigning AFC North champions) in Week 11.
The Saints were undefeated at the Superdome in 2011 and 2013, the two most recent seasons that coach Sean Payton was on the sidelines. Payton was suspended for the 2012 season in the wake of the bounty scandal, and New Orleans went 4-4 at home that year.
“We have a tough home stretch, but those games are going to be at home,” said Lofton, whose team will play one other prime-time game at the Superdome, against Baltimore on Monday Night Football in Week 12. “I feel we have an advantage because we have some of the best fans, one of the best environments for football.”
Brees added: “That middle season stretch where you’re playing a lot of games at home, that’s good. Hopefully, you’re hitting your stride by then.”
That would certainly help for when the Saints travel to their last allotted prime-time game: at Chicago on the Dec. 15 on Monday Night Football.
The Saints are 1-3 at Chicago since 2006, counting that season’s NFC Championship Game, which they lost in January. The two others losses were in the month of December of 2007 and 2008.
“That’s going to be freezing,” Lofton said of the late-season trip to Chicago.
“It’s one after the other,” Brees said about the tests his team will have to navigate this season. “We are going to see what kind of team we are after these road games.”