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OPINION/ANALYSIS

Bradley Handwerger / WWLTV.com Sports Reporter
Email: bhandwerger@wwltv.com | Twitter: @wwltvsports

Quickly glance at the Saints' schedule and it's inevitable that your eyes immediately fixate on late November.

Because you know right now, right this minute five months from now, a three-game run could decide whether the Saints are playoff-bound or home for January.

New Orleans hosts San Francisco on a Sunday afternoon on Nov. 17. Four days later, the Saints travel to Atlanta for a Thursday night game in the Georgia Dome. And then New Orleans heads for a long West Coast road trip to play a Monday night game at Seattle on Dec. 2.

If this rings familiar, it's because it is.

Swap that Monday night game in the Northwest for a Sunday afternoon match in the Northeast against the Giants and you have the same three-game run that ultimately doomed New Orleans in 2012.

New Orleans ended that stretch last season 0-3, losing heartbreakers to San Francisco and Atlanta before getting waylaid in New York. That stretch killed the Saints after they had gotten back to 5-5 and given themselves hope or a surprising playoff push.

That same stretch could be the Saints season once again in 2013.

Two of the three come against quarterbacks who have taken the NFL by storm in Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. And playing at Atlanta on only three days rest won't help even if they have experience with it after last season.

Get out of this stretch 2-1 and the Saints could be onto something.

Three other key games:
1. Sept. 8, vs. Atlanta (noon):
This is easy. Season opener against your biggest rival at home in your head coach's first game back after a year-long suspension? Sure, the Saints will take that. Get a win there and the season not only starts off well, the division becomes yours to lose.

The Saints' defense will get a test early from an Atlanta offense that only got better in the offseason, keeping tight end Tony Gonzalez while adding running back Steven Jackson.

2. Oct. 13, @ New England (3:25 p.m.):
Tom Brady could tie Drew Brees' streak of 54 consecutive games with a touchdown in this one. Do we need to say anything else?

Of course we do. Playing the Patriots since Bill Belichick arrived makes any game against New England a litmus test. It's also the last time the Saints play a team that finished 2012 with a winning record before the November gauntlet.

It also will give New Orleans' defense a chance to see just how far along the defense is after the opening week game against Atlanta. With all due respect to Tampa Bay, Arizona, Miami and Chicago, those four teams don't have the offensive firepower that the Patriots have.

3. Oct. 10, vs. Dallas (3:24 p.m.):
This game against Dallas always gets Saints fans riled up. It also will be Rob Ryan's first game coaching against his old team since being fired after the 2012 season.

A win in this game will give New Orleans a positive bump heading into the brutal stretch against San Francisco, Atlanta and Seattle.

The Cowboys are always a wild card team, one in which you don't know which team will show up from one week to the next. This one comes after a home game against Buffalo and road game at the New York Jets, two winnable games.

Week 1Sunday, Sept. 8Atlanta Falcons12 p.m.
Week 2Sunday, Sept. 15@Tampa Bay Buccaneers3:05 p.m.
Week 3Sunday, Sept. 22Arizona Cardinals12 p.m.
Week 4Monday, Sept. 30Miami Dolphins7:40 p.m.
Week 5Sunday, Oct. 6@Chicago12 p.m.
Week 6Sunday, Oct. 13@New England Patriots3:25 p.m.
Week 7Sunday, Oct. 20Bye
Week 8Sunday, Oct. 27Buffalo12 p.m.
Week 9Sunday, Nov. 3@New York Jets12 p.m.
Week 10Sunday, Nov. 10Dallas Cowboys7:30 p.m.
Week 11Sunday, Nov. 17San Francisco 49ers3:25 p.m.
Week 12Thursday, Nov. 21@Atlanta Falcons7:25 p.m.
Week 13Monday, Dec. 2@Seattle Seahawks7:40 p.m.
Week 14Sunday, Dec. 8Carolina Panthers12 p.m.
Week 15Sunday, Dec. 15@St. Louis Rams12 p.m.
Week 16Sunday, Dec. 22@Carolina Panthers12 p.m.
Week 17Sunday, Dec. 29Tampa Bay Buccaneers12 p.m.
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