Champion Saints launch busy stretch of pre-season games

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New Orleans Saints play for the first time since their Super Bowl triumph when they help launch a busy five days of NFL pre-season games Thursday.

The Saints visit the New England Patriots in one of 16 exhibition games between Thursday and Monday.

"The preseason is an important time for us to evaluate players," Saints coach Sean Payton told reporters. "We have a lot of players that we need to see in live action, so number one is evaluation.

"The number two thing is that it's the first chance we get to play a game against another opponent. That carries a lot of weight."

The Saints won their first-ever Super Bowl with a stirring 31-17 come-from-behind triumph over the Indianapolis Colts in February.

Their Thursday opponents, the Patriots, are no strangers to hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy, having won three Super Bowls in the past decade.

"Some would say they're a dynasty," New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who inspired the Saints' comeback, said. "That's the type of organization that we're aspiring to be. We want to be a championship contender every year."

Thursday's other game will match the rebuilding Carolina Panthers at Baltimore against the always aggressive Ravens defense anchored by 11-time Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis.

The Dallas Cowboys, already with a win in place after defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 16-7 in last week's Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, will meet the Oakland Raiders in one of four games Friday.

The Washington Redskins, with newly acquired quarterback Donovan McNabb, host the Buffalo Bills, the Philadelphia Eagles play at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Atlanta Falcons face the visiting Kansas City Chiefs.

A busy Saturday will feature the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Miami Dolphins, Detroit Lions at Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns at Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings at St. Louis Rams, Houston Texans at Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears at San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans at Seattle Seahawks.

Sunday, the Colts are home to the San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos visit the Bengals.

Bitter New York rivals, the Giants and the Jets, play the first NFL game in the 82,500-seat New Meadowlands Stadium, site of the 2014 Super Bowl, Monday.

The game will mark the New York debut for several players on both teams, including former Chargers running back La Dainian Tomlinson and ex-Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes of the Jets.

Giants newcomers include former Cardinals safety Antrel Rolle and linebacker Keith Bullock, previously with the Titans.

The quest of each team is to make Super Bowl XLV, which will be played at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in February.

(Reporting by Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina. Editing by Steve Ginsburg)