2014 NFL preview: Can the Saints prove they’re a Super Bowl contender?

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) and New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton try to come up with something in the final minutes in a NFL NFC divisional football playoff game between the New Orleans Saints and the Seattle Seahawks at Century Link Field in Seattle, Wash. Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014.
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) and New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton try to come up with something in the final minutes in a NFL NFC divisional football playoff game between the New Orleans Saints and the Seattle Seahawks at Century Link Field in Seattle, Wash. Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014.

If what Archie Manning said back in July was true — that the 2014 Saints roster is possibly the strongest on paper he’s ever seen — it couldn’t come at a better time.

The Saints will need their defense, which allowed the fourth-fewest yards and points in the NFL in 2013, to be at least as good as it was — and to create more turnovers.

They’ll want their offense, which gained the fourth-most yards last year, to be at least as explosive as it was — yet score more than the 25.9 points per game it averaged, ranking 10th in the league.

That’s because, as the new season dawns, the NFL’s rich have stayed rich.

Sure, Manning had basis for his remarks. The Saints accomplished many offseason goals, but two stand above the rest.

One is the free-agent acquisition of ex-Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler whose 22 career interceptions are the most in the NFL among players at his position since he entered the league in 2009.

Another was the first-round draft selection of speedy rookie Brandin Cooks, college football’s Biletnikoff Award winner last season. He made a strong impression in training camp and the preseason.

And, of course, the Saints retain cornerstones coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, who since their arrival in 2006 have led New Orleans to three division titles, five playoff appearances, two NFC Championship Games and a victory in Super Bowl XLIV.

But let’s say the Saints successfully navigate what appears to be a user-friendly schedule, in which they play just five games against returning playoff teams — and only one of those outside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where Payton has not lost a game since the end of the 2010 season. What awaits them?

In the NFC, it could be the Seattle Seahawks, the reigning Super Bowl champions, who have beaten the Saints three straight times. They’ll have a shot as long as coach Pete Carroll, franchise quarterback Russell Wilson and All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman are among their ranks.

It could be the Green Bay Packers, who made the 2013 playoffs even though franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers missed seven games with a broken collarbone. Rodgers — who has won a mind-boggling 77.5 percent of his games and a Super Bowl since the 2010 postseason — heads into 2014 fully healed.

There’s Carolina, which managed to keep much of its No. 2-ranked defense intact and will try to become the first NFC South champion to repeat. There’s San Francisco, which kept all of the important pieces of its third-ranked rushing attack from last year and has made every NFC title game since 2011.

At least the Saints will get litmus tests with Green Bay, Carolina and San Francisco all on the schedule.

And in the AFC? There’s New England, a perennial challenger with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady around, not to mention All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who’s on the mend.

One more contender is a familiar one: Archie’s son, Peyton, who was on the losing side of Super Bowl XLIV when he was with the Colts. Heading into his third year with Denver, it’s mathematically improbable Peyton Manning repeats the historic 2013 in which set single-season records for passing yards (5,477), touchdown passes (55) and captured an unprecedented fifth league MVP trophy before he and the Broncos were routed 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII by the Seahawks.

But a down year by Manning’s standards still keeps him in step with elites like Rodgers and Brees. And after being humbled by Seattle, the Broncos re-armed themselves in free agency with big names such as four-time All-Pro defensive end DeMarcus Ware and Pro Bowl defensive backs Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward.

That gives them as much a right to aspire to contention as anyone — including the Saints.