Deja vu in the Big Easy. After defeating the Bengals on the road in Week 11 by a score of 51-14, the Saints returned home to trounce the defending Super Bowl Champion Eagles, 48-7. That 31-point loss is the most by a championship- defending team ever. Two wins by a combined score of 68 to put New Orleans at 9-1 on the season has then floating somewhere right above Cloud9.
The road to the Super Bowl, however, has just begun. In fact, the Saints are still in the hunt to officially secure a playoff spot in the NFC. They still have four division games left, half of which are on the road. After defeating the Vikings, Rams, Bengals, and Eagles, all in that order, the Saints still have a tough schedule ahead. Here are the three most difficult games New Orleans will play in the rest of 2018.
Games not mentioned: Week 13 at Dallas (Thursday Night Football), Week 14 at Tampa Bay, Week 17 vs. Carolina.
Week 12 vs. Atlanta (Win!)
Not only was this a Thursday Night game against a division rival, it’s also just the second time in franchise history the Saints played on Thanksgiving. The first occurrence was eight years ago, resulting in a 30-27 win for New Orleans at home against the Dallas Cowboys. So, the pressure was on during Turkey Day 2018 in the Big Easy. The Saints haven’t faced the Falcons since Week 3 of the season, a 43-37 overtime road win for the Saints. The last time these two teams met in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans got an early present in Christmas Eve, winning the bout 23-13 in 2017.
This Falcons team isn’t the same, though, as fans expected a much healthier Atlanta team this Thursday compared to the recent weeks, and the game back in September.
The 4-6 record of the Falcons became a facade come Thursday, especially since division rivals tend to “have your number” much easier. The win here — in theory — eliminated the Falcons from possibly winning the NFC South this season, leaving only Carolina in New Orleans’ way to being division kings. The Saints were not caught napping during this Thanksgiving feast.
Good news for New Orleans to have already won one of its three toughest remaining games.
Week 15 at Carolina
After sweeping the Panthers in the regular and post season last year, the Saints have to wait until the third-to-last game of the 2018 season to see Carolina again. Both teams could be drastically different at this point in the season, but both could also be fighting their hardest for playoff position. That possibility makes this game, another rivalry one, a must-win for the Saints no matter their record. New Orleans has a very good chance of entering this game with a playoff spot clinched, and an okay chance of ending up with the NFC South crown by this point as well.
However, playoff seeding will still be extremely important at this point no matter what. The Rams could easily be right behind the Saints, waiting to pounce on homefield advantage. New Orleans could even be in the mix for the second or third seed, a difference of having a bye week to rest up or not. And, as inconsistent of a team they’ve been, the Panthers are just as balanced as any squad in the league. Being division rivals like Atlanta, Carolina is more prone to having New Orleans’ number and formula to win, as these teams have played so often in the past.
Week 16 vs. Pittsburgh
Sandwiched between the two games against Carolina is a home matchup against one of the AFC’s best teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers. This quite possibly could be a Super Bowl preview, as the Steelers have been able to find ways to win in 2018. They’ve already swept the rest of the NFC South, and sit at 7-3 currently in an up-and-down division. Luckily, the Saints have also already slept the rest of the NFC North, so something’s gotta give here.
This game is important for two main reasons: this is the second toughest team the Saints will play all season (first being Los Angeles Rams), and the Steelers will be just as eager and desperate for a win here as the Saints will be. Pittsburgh will most likely be competing for the first, second, or third seed in the AFC, making this game the difference between having a bye week and a home game and not having either possibly.
The Steelers also have a high-powered offense that could come close to matching that if New Orleans’. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Rothelisberger is throwing to guys like Antonio Brown, Juju Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Jesse James while James Conner comes out of the backfield behind one of the best offensive lines in the league. This game could be a gritty shootout the Saints can’t afford to lose.