NEW ORLEANS â€“ 13-3? 12-4? 11-5? 10-6?
With the start of the NFL regular season still 4 Â½ months away, itâ€™s anyone's guess how the New Orleans Saints will fare in 2011.
The more provocativeÂ question today is whether the 2011 season will start on time or if the current labor dispute between the NFL â€œtrade associationâ€™â€™ and league owners will short-circuit the 16-game schedule.
With that in mind, letâ€™s move forward as if the season will kick off as scheduled. Â
For the second consecutive year and third time in five years, the Saints will help usher in a new season, visiting the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers on Thursday, Sept. 8 at 7:30 p.m. (NBC) at storied Lambeau Field. Â
The Saints also opened the NFL regular season in 2007 on the road against the reigning Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts and last year at home against the Minnesota Vikings.
In the seven-year history of Super Bowl winners hosting the following season's opener, the home team has never lost.
Keep in mind, a protracted labor dispute could play havoc with the Saints-Packers game on Sept. 8.
â€œTo open the season against the defending Super Bowl champions, at Lambeau Field, is a tremendous challenge right off the bat,â€™â€™ Saints Coach Sean Payton said Tuesday night. â€œPlus, the fact that we end up with four primetime games is a sign that there is a high level of interest in the Saints. Â
â€œThat reflects favorably on both our organization and our fans.â€™â€™ Â
The NFL season-opening game matches two high-scoring teams and their innovative coaches in Payton and Mike McCarthy of the Packers (a former Saints offensive coordinator), who emerged as the shining stars from the NFL Coaching Class of 2006, a year that saw 10 teams hire new coaches. Â
Each has taken similar paths during his first five years as an NFL head coach. Consider: Â
-- Payton, 47, has a 53-33 overall record, including 2-0 against the Packers and McCarthy and 4-2 in the postseason. Payton has won Super Bowl XLIV, one NFC championship (2009) and two division titles (2006-â€™09) and lost in an NFC championship game (2006).
-- McCarthy, 47, has a 53-34 overall record, including 5-2 in the postseason. He has won Super Bowl XLV, one NFC championship (2010) and one division championship (2007) and lost in an NFC championship game (2007). Â
Game of the NFL seasonÂ also will feature the last two Super Bowl MVPs â€“ quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. Â
The Saints-Packers game representsÂ one of four primetime games for the Black and Gold, who have become one of the darlings of network and cable sports TV. Â
Other primetime games include three at home: Â
â€¢ Indianapolis Colts, Oct. 23, 7:20 p.m. (Sunday, NBC), Superdome. Â
â€¢ New York Giants, Nov. 28, 7:30 p.m. (Monday, ESPN), Superdome.
â€¢ Atlanta Falcons, Dec. 26, 7:30 p.m. (Monday, ESPN), Superdome.
â€œThis is a great home slate in primetime for our fans,â€™â€™ Payton said. Â
The schedule features other dynamics worth noting: Â
-- It appears the Saints have dodged a cold-weather game. The only possibility is a road game at the Tennessee Titans on Dec. 11. Â
-- The Saints will play three consecutive road games to open the month of October â€“ at Jacksonville (Oct. 2), at Carolina (Oct. 9) and at Tampa Bay (Oct. 16). Â
-- The bye comes in Week 11. Four of the Saintsâ€™ final six games will be played at home, including Games 15 and 16 against NFC South foes Atlanta (Dec. 26) and Carolina (Jan. 1).
-- Both Manning boys - Peyton and Eli - will bring their teams to their hometownÂ for a primetime encounter; the Colts on Oct. 23 and the Giants on Nov. 28.Â Incidentally, Peyton and his wife, Ashley, welcomed twins into the world on March 31, aÂ son, Marshall Williams Manning, and a daughter, Mosley Thompson Manning.
-- Paytonâ€™s chief nemesis since becoming head coach in New Orleans in 2006 has been the Chicago Bears. His teams are 0-3 against the Bears, with all three losses coming at Soldier Field late in the season, including a 39-14 setback in the 2006 NFC Championship game. Â
-- Only one Saints game will be played west of the Mississippi River (at St. Louis on Oct. 30), meaning no games will be played in mountain or pacific times. Â
â€œI look at travel logistics,â€™â€™ Payton said, â€œand we donâ€™t have a lot of long trips because of the divisions weâ€™re playing against (NFC North and AFC South). We also have a lot of mid-day starts.
â€œIt doesnâ€™t appear weather will play a factor and I like the later bye, too. All in all, I like the schedule and it presents a great challenge for us.â€™â€™ Â
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