No team had a worse end to their 2017 season than the New Orleans Saints, who gave up a 61-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the game to the Minnesota Vikings in a 24-29 loss in the Division Round of the playoffs.

As much as that loss had to hurt, there were all kinds of positives to take from last year’s breakout season. The Saints finished 11-5 and won their first NFC South title since 2011. They also snapped a string of three straight seasons in which they finished a disappointing 7-9.

The big turnaround and rise back to the top of the NFC ranks was a direct result of the offense being more balanced with the running game and the defense taking a massive step forward.

Still, the hopes of getting back to the Super Bowl in 2018 rest firmly on the shoulders of 39-year-old quarterback Drew Brees. While Brees is coming off another spectacular season, one in which he set the NFL record for completion percentage at 72%, we are that point in a quarterbacks’ career where things can take a turn for the worse in the blink of an eye.

If Brees puts anywhere close to the numbers of last year, the Saints are a legit threat to win the NFC. If he starts to decline or suffers a serious injury, wins will be hard to come by with backup Tom Savage under center.

One thing we can expect is another heavy dose of running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Tamara. Both are coming off monster seasons. Ingram rushed 1,124 yards and caught 58 passes for 826 yards (12 total TDs). Kamara had 728 yards on the ground and hauled in 81 passes for 826 yards (13 total TDs).

There will also be plenty of balls thrown towards third-year wide out Michael Thomas, who has caught 196 passes for 2,382 yards and 14 touchdowns over his first 2 seasons in the league. Ted Ginn Jr and Brandon Coleman are both back, but keep an eye out for free agent pick Cameron Meredith. He missed all of last season with a knee injury, but had caught 66 passes for 888 yards and 4 scores in 2016 with Chicago. Veteran tight end Benjamin Watson was also added in free agency and should play a role in the passing game.

One of the surprising things with how well New Orleans’ offense performed, is the injuries they were able to overcome on the offensive line. Projected starting right tackle Riley Strief was lost for the year in Week 1 and talented left tackle Terron Armstead missed 6 games.

The unit looks to be in good shape going into 2018, but depth is a concern. Armstead forms quite a duo on the left side with guard Andrew Peat. They have a top notch center in Max Unger and right guard Larry Warford is coming off a Pro Bowl season. Ryan Ramczyk took over for Strief at right tackle and will hold onto the job after Strief decided to retire.

The improvements the Saints made on the defensive side of the ball were quite impressive. New Orleans finished up the 2016 season ranked 27th in total defense (375.4 ypg) and 31st in points allowed (28.4 ppg). In 2017 they made massive jumps in both categories. The Saints finished a respectable 17th in total defense (336.5 ypg) and were T-10th in scoring defense (20.4 ppg). They also went from ranking 27th in sacks (30) to T-7th (42).

New Orleans has to feel pretty confident that the stop unit can at least replicate last year’s success, as they have brought back most of the key pieces and made some nice additions.

One of those additions came via the draft, as the Saints used their 1st round pick (No. 14 overall) on UTSA defensive end Marcus Davenport. The hope is that Davenport can come in right away and start opposite of Cam Jordan, who led the tam with 13 sacks a year ago. They also now have great depth at the end position with Alex Okafor and Hau’oli Kikaha ready to step in if someone gets hurt.

New Orleans got solid production out of their linebackers last year and get back their top four producers in A.J. Klein, Alex Anzalone, Manti Te’o and Craig Robertson. They didn’t just settle with what they had, as they went out and signed free agent Demario Davis, who led the New York Jets in tackles last season. Davis figures to start in the middle with Anzalone and Klein the likely starters on the outside.

Last year the Saints used their 1st round pick on Ohio State corner Marshon Lattimore and he was even better than advertised. Lattimore gave New Orleans the shutdown corner they so desperately needed and he wound up winning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Ken Crawley and P.J. Williams are the other two corners back from last year, but both could end up competing for sub-package roles with the free agent signing of veteran Patrick Robinson. Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams emerged as the starting safeties, allowing the team to part ways with Kenny Vaccaro.

Even when the Saints were going 7-9, those teams came in with high expectations simply because they had Brees at quarterback. This year feels a lot different with the improvements this team made on both sides of the ball. The big question now is whether or not New Orleans can live up the hype.

2018 Saints Schedule & Projected Odds

Below you will find the early odds released by Vegas for Weeks 1-16, as well as my projected number for Week 17. Using the lines we are able to give a game-by-game win probability, which we used to come up an expected win total.

WeekOpponentEst. OddsWins
1Buccaneers-70.75
2Browns-100.84
3at Falcons+30.41
4at Giants-2.50.55
5Redskins MNF-7.50.78
6BYEBYEBYE
7at RavensPK0.50
8at Vikings SNF+40.34
9Rams-20.54
10at Bengals-30.59
11Eagles-20.54
12Falcons TNF-3.50.64
13at Cowobys TNF+1.50.48
14at Buccaneers-30.59
15at Panthers MNF+10.49
16Steelers-10.51
17Panthers-40.66

Projected Wins: 9.20

Over/Under Wins Prediction: UNDER 9.5

This was a difficult win total for me to predict. There’s clearly a ton of potential with the Saints team, but at the same time, I think they just as easily could disappoint. The biggest thing for me in taking the UNDER 9.5 wins is the schedule.

New Orleans has an excellent shot at starting the season 2-0 with home games against the Bucs and Browns, but it gets really tough from there on out. New Orleans has to play 8 of their next 12 games on the road. They also have a brutal home slate after those first two games against Cleveland and Tampa. The Saints final 6 home games are against the Redskins, Rams, Eagles, Falcons, Steelers and Panthers. Getting to double-digit wins with that schedule is not going to be easy and a couple of injuries could derail this season.

Odds to Win the Super Bowl: +1800

I don’t think it would surprise any one if New Orleans won it all in 2018. In fact, I’ve seen numerous publications out there that have the Saints as their Super Bowl champs. There’s no question the potential is there for a magical season, but I’m simply not as high on this team as others.

Odds to Win the NFC: +900

Same thing here with the Saints odds to win the NFC. If everything goes right, there’s no question that New Orleans could be the last team standing in the NFC. Right now the Saints have the fifth best odds to win the conference behind the likes of the Eagles (+400), Rams (+600), Vikings (+550) and the Packers (+600).

Odds to Win the NFC South: +180

One of the reasons I’m being cautious with my expectations for New Orleans is it’s going to be tough for them to simply win their own division. Both the Falcons and Panthers made the postseason a year ago and both will be right there with the Saints in the race for the top spot in the NFC South in 2018.