Saints are searching for answers after their 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers _lowres

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (13) carries on a reception as New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis tries to tackle in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014. The Panthers won 41-10. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)


With New Orleans coming off its worst loss in a season full of bad ones, offensive tackle Zach Strief named one common element Monday in a maddeningly inconsistent year. He said the pre-game atmosphere in the locker room has been a reliable predictor of the Saints’ performance every week, not just in Sunday’s 41-10 embarrassment against Carolina the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“I’m telling you I could go back to games and say I felt that coming when it doesn’t go well,” he said. “And I feel that coming when we play well.”

Strief said he had no issue with the way the Saints (5-8) practiced each week. The problems have arisen only on game day.

“I know what it looks like when a team is ready,” he said. “I don’t think (being unready) is intended. I don’t think it’s guys walking in like ‘I don’t care.” I think it’s not realizing how up you have to be for every game to be successful.

“A lot of it is the expectation that showing up and playing is enough. It’s not. OK, I put my uniform on, I look good, I walk out on the field and now that we’re here and we’re the Saints and we have this history where we’ll win games, now we’re just gonna win this game. And that’s not the reality of this league. The teams that created that perception here, it wasn’t like that.”

A couple of Strief’s teammates did not share his assessment.

“I watched the tape last night a couple times and didn’t look like guys weren’t playing hard,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “That just comes with being in this league. You should be riled up about any game, so I don’t think it’s an emotional thing.”

Center Jonathan Goodwin ripped the Saints’ performance but stopped short of criticizing the effort level.

“The crazy thing is a lot of times when you lose games, you can look back on the week and say you saw certain things in practice, and I haven’t see that,” he said. “That’s the real mind-boggling thing about this season.”

Even more mind-boggling might be this fact—if Atlanta loses as expected Monday night at Green Bay, the Saints still will be tied for first in the NFC South and will control their own destiny for winning the division.

Coach Sean Payton was not exactly brimming with confidence about that prospect considering the way the Saints have played in losing four of their last five.

“The only reason we're sitting here still with that small sliver of hope is just because the way the division has unfolded this year,” he said. “Here's some key things that hold true every year. It's still about blocking, tackling, the fundamentals of ball security. And when those start to slip, you start seeing inconsistent results and that's what we're seeing right now. That's just the truth.”