Maybe the NFL heard Sean Payton’s complaints from a year ago.
After playing the Carolina Panthers on the road on a Thursday night following a Sunday night game, the New Orleans Saints coach let his frustrations be known by complaining about the schedule.
He had a point. It was unfair, and such scheduling disparities almost never happen. Besides, it was the third Thursday night game the team had played on the road in three seasons.
It appears the league listened.
The Saints, who finished 7-9 last season, have been given a favorable schedule in terms of logistics: They open Sept. 13 at the Arizona Cardinals, and they will finally play a Thursday night game at home (Oct. 15 against the Atlanta Falcons). New Orleans’ only back-to-back games on the road will be split with a Week 11 bye.
And while fans might enjoy prime-time games, the players don’t always feel the same. New Orleans only has three — Week 4 vs. Dallas (Sunday night), Week 6 vs. Atlanta (Thursday night) and Week 15 vs. Detroit (Monday night) — and they’re all at home.
In terms of strength of schedule, the Saints have the fifth-easiest slate of games in the NFL; their opponents had a combined winning percentage of .429 last season. The Falcons have the easiest schedule on paper, facing teams that posted a winning percentage of .409.
New Orleans went 3-3 against its divisional rivals last season. The Lions and Cowboys are the only repeat opponents from last season; both beat the Saints.
But three of New Orleans’ toughest games will come within the first four weeks. The Cardinals, Carolina Panthers (Week 3) and Cowboys (Week 4) all made the playoffs last year and will provide early tests for New Orleans’ revamped roster.
Another possible advantage is that weather likely will not be a concern most of the season. Arizona can close the roof of its stadium if there is extreme heat for the opener, and road dates against the Philadelphia Eagles (Week 5) and Washington Redskins (Week 10) come early enough in the season that adverse conditions could be completely avoided.
After opening against the Cardinals, the Saints will be at home in Week 2 against Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers are expected to draft quarterback Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota with the top pick in next week’s draft, meaning this date could provide a first look at a new rival.
The Saints then go on the road to Carolina before playing the Cowboys and Eagles. Next comes the Falcons on Thursday night.
New Orleans’ secondary will best tested heavily in Weeks 7 and 8, first on the road against the Indianapolis Colts and then at home against the New York Giants. The Colts feature speedy wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and Andre Johnson, who left the Houston Texans to join the Indianapolis Colts this offseason — and, of course, one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks in Andrew Luck. And the Giants roll out receivers Odell Beckham Jr. (the ex-Newman and LSU star) and Victor Cruz, who missed most of last season with a knee injury.
The second half of the schedule is more favorable and features only two playoff teams, Detroit and Carolina.
The slate starts with a date against the Tennessee Titans, who could start former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger. The next two are on the road against the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans but are split by a Week 11 bye.
The Saints then host the Panthers, go on the road against the Bucs, host the Lions (on Monday night) and the Jacksonville Jaguars and close on the road against the Falcons.
While there are many advantages to how this schedule sets up, the Saints learned the hard way last season that perception and reality might not matter. Last year, the team believed it had a soft schedule and limped to a 1-3 start.
So, the team will have to fight through a rough patch to start and take advantage of all the advantages it has been given with this schedule.
But, if nothing else, the league righted some wrongs — which, for now, should make the Saints happy.