Drew Brees

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees calls a play at the line during the second half of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn) ORG XMIT: MNCN1

Bruce Kluckhohn

The New Orleans Saints won the NFC South in 2017 despite facing the NFL's eighth-hardest schedule, a slate of opponents that looked relatively easy at first but got much harder with the emergence of teams like the Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams.

New Orleans might have to overcome an even tougher slate to return to the playoffs next year. 

According to ESPN, the Saints are tied with the Detroit Lions for the second-toughest schedule in 2018, based on 2017 records. 

Teams scheduled to take on the Saints in 2018 finished 137-119 in 2017, one game behind the slate facing the Green Bay Packers, who will have to handle the league's toughest based on 2017 games.

The reasons for the strength of the New Orleans schedule are simple.

For starters, the Saints play in an NFC South that landed three teams in the playoffs in 2017.

And by virtue of winning the division for the first time since 2011, New Orleans must face the other division winners in the NFC, meaning the Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles are on the docket along with the Vikings and Rams.

NFL schedules are predetermined. Teams face the rest of their division twice a year, then face the rest of the divisions in the NFL on a rotating basis: for the Saints, it's the NFC East and AFC North next year. The rest of the games are based on a team's finish the previous season.

If there's a silver lining to the Saints' 2018 schedule, it's that New Orleans gets a lot of the heavy hitters at home. The Saints face Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Los Angeles at home, while the only 2017 division winner on the away slate is a return trip to Minnesota.

But the lesson of the 2017 season is that a team's schedule might end up looking a whole lot different once the games begin. All four division winners in the NFC were teams that failed to make the playoffs in 2016; only one NFC playoff team from the 2016 bracket, the Atlanta Falcons, made it back to the tournament this year. 

Which means that as tough as the Saints' schedule looks right now, it might look very different by the end of next season. 

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.