NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- If only to curb speculation about the end of an era, the New Orleans Saints could use a strong start to the 2017 regular season.
Given that the 38-year-old Drew Brees is in the final year of his contract and the Saints haven't had a winning season since 2013, early-season stumbles would only lend credence to the notion Brees might want to keep options open in free agency. The Saints, meanwhile, might be more inclined to review whether a coaching change is worth considering.
Yet, if New Orleans storms out of the gate, it'll hardly look like the right time to break up the band.
"It is going to be important for this team to handle the first four weeks of the season and hopefully try to start faster than we have," coach Sean Payton said, referring to 1-3 starts to each of the previous three seasons.
Whether NFL schedulers did the Saints any favors is another matter.
Three of their first four games are outside the Superdome, starting with a Monday night contest in which New Orleans brings former Vikings star Adrian Peterson back to Minnesota. Six days later comes the Saints' home opener against defending champion New England, which will have the benefit of 10 days of rest.
Week 3 brings a road game against NFC South rival Carolina, followed by a game in London against Miami.
"It's by no means a cake walk early on," veteran right tackle Zach Strief said. "What this team needs is to understand that we are good enough to get on a run, and it's hard to do that when you lose early."
While the Saints traded away a top receiver in Brandin Cooks, they added potentially important pieces to an offense that ranked first in the NFL last season: running backs Peterson and Alvin Kamara, right guard Larry Warford, and tackle Ryan Ramczyk.
But the Saints also must improve considerably on defense after that unit ranked 27th overall, and last against the pass.
Here are some central factors in the Saints' 2017 season:
PETERSON'S PRESENCE: Peterson is 32 and coming off a second knee surgery, but New Orleans doesn't need him to be the workhorse he was in Minnesota. He'll get the ball less by virtue of sharing carries with Mark Ingram and will play in a scheme that could punish defenses for focusing on stopping the run.
"You're talking about one of the great running backs that's ever played," Brees said. "I think he's got a lot left in him. He'll add a great complement to what we have with Mark Ingram."
GROUND GAINS: Having not only Peterson and Ingram, but also third-round draft choice Kamara , begs the question: Will the Saints run more?
"Whatever it takes to win," Brees said. "If we hand it off 50 times a game and we throw it 20 times a game and we're winning, man, that is great."
Strief said he doesn't see evidence of the Saints dialing back their passing attack.
"What has become more and more an emphasis for us is maintaining balance to keep Drew clean," Strief said. "He's always going to be the engine as long as he's here, no matter how old or how frail people think he's getting."
UNDERDOG DEFENSE: The Saints have been encouraged by the performance of their defense in the preseason, particularly in terms of the pass rush and coverage. The Saints racked up 17 sacks in four preseason games and did not allow an offensive touchdown in their second or third exhibition games.
"We've been challenged all offseason," said defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, a 2016 first-round pick who was injured for the first half of his rookie season. "That's all we've heard is 27th-ranked defense, bad against the pass, can't stop the run, can't get pressure on quarterbacks. So we've played with a chip on our shoulder all preseason and I think it showed."
They've also benefited from the addition of linebacker A.J. Klein, who's received praise for his ability to communicate pre-snap instructions pertaining to alignments and assignments. Other new defensive regulars include end Alex Okafor , rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, rookie safety Marcus Williams, and linebackers Manti Te'o and rookie Alex Anzalone.
"With guys being healthy and with the new additions of guys, it's just a different feel," Rankins said.
CATCHING ON: While second-year receiver Michael Thomas looks ready for stardom after a rookie season in which he had 1,137 yards and nine TDs, New Orleans will need other pass catchers to emerge because of both the Cooks trade and the three-game suspension of Willie Snead (for violating the NFL personal conduct policy by driving while impaired). The Saints hope free agent acquisition Ted Ginn Jr. is a good fit, and for a better season out of tight end Coby Fleener, as well as young receivers Brandon Coleman and Tommylee Lewis.