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John DeShazier 2014 schedule analysis: Saints will be road tested early

Saints have to play three of their first four games away from Mercedes-Benz Superdome

Can the New Orleans Saints continue their home magic?

They won't learn the answer to that question until Week 3 of the upcoming season, when they play the home opener against Minnesota on Sept. 21. New Orleans finished undefeated at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome last season, when they won their eight games by an average score of 34-16 and scored at least 31 points in six of the victories.

Also, they'll quickly learn if they're an improved road team next season, given that three of the team's first four games are on the road.

New Orleans, which finished 3-5 on the road during the regular season last season, will open with consecutive road games against Atlanta and Cleveland on Sept. 7 and 14 before it plays the home opener, against Minnesota at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, on Sept. 21. Then, the Saints will go back on the road in Week 4, for a Sunday night game in Dallas on Sept. 28.

Improved road play figures to be critical for New Orleans; the Saints fell one game short of winning the NFC South Division title last season after dropping their final three road games. However, the team might've built some road momentum courtesy of its wild-card victory in Philadelphia, the first road playoff win in franchise history.

That win allowed the Saints to conquer two nemeses – road playoff games and cold-weather games.

New Orleans lost December road games against Seattle and Carolina, and also was eliminated from the playoffs in Seattle in a divisional playoff game. But the win in Philadelphia was a confidence booster, and the Saints likely will lean on that experience when they play two potentially cold-weather road games this season – at Pittsburgh on Nov. 30 and in Chicago for a Monday night game Dec. 15.

The team also will have another rugged stretch in which it will play a compacted schedule. Last season, New Orleans had a three-games-in-12-days stretch, when it won home games against Dallas and San Francisco and a road game in Atlanta from Nov. 10-21.

This year, the briar patch will be from Oct. 19-30, with a road game against Detroit (Oct. 19), a home game against Green Bay on Sunday night (Oct. 26) and a Thursday night road game against Carolina (Oct. 30).

On paper, the schedule doesn't appear especially daunting; only five games will be played against 2013 playoff teams. But division games always are difficult, Detroit's explosive offense will test the Saints' improved defense, San Francisco has been played frequently enough in recent seasons to almost qualify as a division rival – and the 49ers advanced to the NFC championship game – and Baltimore figures to be an extremely physical test the week after the Saints play the AFC North Division champions, Cincinnati.

The most difficult stretch, in regard to 2013 playoff teams, will be from Oct. 26 through Nov. 24, five games against playoff teams (Green Bay, Carolina, San Francisco, Cincinnati and Baltimore).

But four of the five will be in the Superdome and if the Saints are anywhere near as potent at home this year as they were last year, they should be fine.

The Saints won their first five games last season, a jump that was aided by playing three of the first four games at home. They won't have that advantage this year.

Quickly, they'll find out if they can produce another fast start without it.

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