Bradley Handwerger / Sports Reporter
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The Saints might be heading into the 2012 season without a true head coach, but the NFL certainly softened the blow from what it could have been.

While the schedule is no slouch the Saints face last season's best team in the regular season, both NFC championship game participants and the Super Bowl champion Giants it's not the worst schedule while they'll be short-handed.

Interim head coach Joe Vitt won't return until the Week 8 game at Denver, a Sunday primetime game against Peyton Manning and John Fox.

Prior to that, the Saints' opponents combined to go 47-49 a season ago.

The meat of New Orleans schedule, including the toughest stretch, comes upon his return.

Forget the Packers game for a second and the three primetime games before the Nov. 25 game against San Francisco.

Because that's when the season either hits the skids or ratchets up for a postseason push.

The Saints host the 49ers on Sunday afternoon. Four nights later, they play at Atlanta on Thursday night football. And 10 days later, the Saints travel for the final outdoor game of the season when they play at the reigning Super Bowl champion Giants.

New Orleans, in spite of the bounty scandal, doesn't appear to be nuclear. Four primetime games and three afternoon nationally-televised games are on the slate.

The Saints also finish with seven of the final nine games indoors and eight of the final nine on artificial turf.

Week 1: vs. Washington (noon)
The Saints will open the season at home for the fourth time in the past five seasons, but this time they'll be without Sean Payton. And no Joe Vitt, either; he'll be beginning his six-game suspension. The previous three openers times that happened all ended in wins. And like in 2009, the Saints will likely open the season against a rookie quarterback starting for the first time; in 2009, it was Matthew Stafford and Detroit. This time it'll be Robert Griffin III and the Redskins. The Redskins went 5-11 a season ago.

Week 2: at Carolina (noon)
This one won't be a cake walk. Cam Newton skied above rookie-year expectations and doesn't look like a player who will take a step back in Year 2. The Panthers were a dangerous team by the end of the last season and a year and a true offseason under Ron Rivera can only help the Panthers. This will be a difficult test, the first true test of the Saints' leadership group as a team without a head coach goes on the road for a nasty intra-division game. It will also be the first test for Steve Spagnuolo's defense. Carolina was 6-10 a season ago.

Week 3: vs. Kansas City (noon)
The Chiefs wheels fell off a season ago, getting their coach fired. Who knows what's in store for Kansas City this season but I can't imagine it'll be threatening, even for New Orleans, a team without a head coach. Kansas City finished 7-9 a season ago.

Week 4: at Green Bay (3:15 p.m.)
In the first game of national importance for the Saints, New Orleans will travel to Lambeau Field for the second season in a row. This will be the second test in three weeks for Spagnuolo's defense and it will be the first real sign should they get through the opening three weeks - about whether the Saints can survive without Sean Payton and Joe Vitt. Green Bay finished 15-1 a season ago.

Week 5: vs. San Diego (7:20 p.m.)
For the Saints, they're lucky to get this game when they did. San Diego is notorious for starting out slowly and New Orleans can only hope that remains the case. It's also the first night game for New Orleans and it's at home, where the Saints tend to play even above their high standard at night. San Diego went 8-8 a season ago.

Week 6: Bye

Week 7: at Tampa Bay (noon)
In the Saints final game before Joe Vitt returns from his suspension, New Orleans goes on the road for the third time in six games. And it'll be facing a team with a new coach that totally got out of whack a season ago. I'm a little dubious of Greg Schiano, especially in his first season. This could either be a big win or a demoralizing loss. The meat of the Saints schedule remains after this game, which could be a must-win. Tampa Bay went 6-10 a season ago.

Week 8: at Denver (7:20 p.m.)
In the Saints' second primetime game of the season, they'll face Peyton Manning and former nemesis John Fox a mile above sea level. It has the potential to be cold so that could test. But the Saints will be riding the return of Joe Vitt. Denver's defense carried the team to the playoffs a season ago and could be a test for the Saints. Denver finished 8-8 a season ago.

Week 9: vs. Philadelphia (7:30 p.m.)
It's the second straight night game for New Orleans and it comes against a wild card. The Eagles were anointed Super Bowl champions before last season and then flopped out of the gate. But they finished strong and could be set up for a big run in 2012. Quarterback Michael Vick could be yet another test for a still new Steve Spagnuolo defense. It's also the first game in November, when Sean Payton has repeatedly said begins to matter most. Playoff berths can't be gained here, but they can certainly be lost. Philadelphia went 8-8 a season ago.

Week 10: vs. Falcons (noon)
This caps the only back-to-back home games of the season for New Orleans, a schedule oddity that could work against the Saints. This will be the first week that Mickey Loomis can again have contact with the team after serving an eight-game suspension. It'll also be a big game for middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who played an integral role in the Falcons defense the past four seasons. Atlanta finished 10-6 a season ago.

Week 11: at Oakland (3:05 p.m.)
The Raiders weren't the best but weren't the worst team in 2011. Carson Palmer will have a full offseason to mesh with former Saints defensive backs coach Dennis Allen. And the franchise will finally have a bit of stability after Al Davis' death; the new GM cut his chops in Green Bay and has earned respect. The Raiders could be better than people think and it's a West Coast game, always tough for New Orleans (see: last year, San Francisco; Jan. 2011; Seattle). Oakland went 8-8 a season ago.

Week 12: vs. San Francisco (3:15 p.m.)
This is the marquee game, in my mind, of the season. It's the Gregg Williams game. It's the 2011 blitz-fest rematch. It's the Jan. 2012 playoff loss to San Francisco. The 49ers will have this game circled and the Saints will, too. Expect a hard-hitting, emotional game in the Superdome. The site of the game could have the biggest impact of all, in fact. San Francisco went 13-3 a season ago.

Week 13: at Atlanta (7:20 p.m.)
See Week 10 recap.

Week 14: at New York Giants (3:15 p.m.)
The Saints travel to play the reigning Super Bowl champions and at least they get them in December. Prior to 2011, the Giants were known to trail off late in the season. This game, though, could be brutal for New Orleans. It's the final outdoor game of the season and it could be bitterly cold. Or, like this past winter, it could downright warm. Who knows what Mother Nature has in store. Eli Manning will get to face the Saints in his home stadium instead of the Superdome, where he has been destroyed in the most recent matchups. New York went 9-7 a season ago.

Week 15: vs. Tampa Bay (noon)
See Week 7 recap.

Week 16: at Dallas (noon)
The last time the Saints played Dallas, it was on Thanksgiving in Dallas in 2010. And New Orleans came away with an emotional late-game win thanks to the heroics of Malcolm Jenkins. New Orleans will like that this game is in December; Dallas hasn't exactly been great in the final month of the season in the past half decade. Dallas finished 8-8 a season ago.

Week 17: vs. Carolina (noon)
See Week 2 recap.

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