With the New Orleans Saints coming off their worst loss in a season of bad ones, tackle Zach Strief found one common element Monday amid a maddeningly inconsistent year.

He said the pregame 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 at 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. I know what it looks like when a team is ready.”

Strief said he had no issue with the way the Saints (5-8) practiced each week. The problems have arisen on game day. The latest defeat was their fourth in a row at home.

“You don’t want to put in that work and then have that product on the field,” he said. “To me, that is the epitome of professionalism. 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.

“I keep talking about energy. There’s lots of reasons why we lost that game; we did plenty of things wrong. But to me, it’s less about that stuff and more about why is it that we can’t have the week-to-week energy that’s necessary to win a game.”

New Orleans played well enough to beat NFC-leading Green Bay 44-23 and AFC North co-leader Pittsburgh 35-32 but lost by 17 or more to Dallas, Cincinnati and Carolina.

“A lot of it is the expectation that showing up and playing is enough,” Strief said. “It’s not. (Players think) ‘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 going to 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 it didn’t look like guys weren’t playing hard,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “I don’t think it’s an emotional thing.”

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

“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.”

Playoff position

What’s more mind-boggling than the Saints’ inconsistency? Maybe that they remained tied for the NFC South lead after Atlanta lost 43-37 at streaking Green Bay on Monday night.

New Orleans plays at Chicago next Monday, hosts Atlanta the following Sunday and finishes at Tampa Bay. Atlanta hosts Pittsburgh this Sunday and Carolina on the season’s final Sunday.

Coach Sean Payton was not exactly brimming with confidence about the Saints’ playoff prospects.

“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 about blocking, tackling, the fundamentals of ball security. And when those start to slip, you see inconsistent results. That’s just the truth.”

The first-place team in every other division has at least eight wins. The Saints would be virtually eliminated from playoff consideration if they were not in the NFC South.

“When you’re in this position, you’ve got to find any type of optimism,” Vaccaro said. “Everybody wants to make the playoffs. Once you make the playoffs, everybody’s 0-0. It’s a plus.”

No toughness

The only similarity between New Orleans’ 28-10 win at Carolina on Oct. 30 and Sunday’s debacle was the Saints’ first two offensive possessions, when they committed turnovers.

They held the Panthers without a point after their miscues on the road but gave up 10 points off their two turnovers in the rematch. Their first performance turned out to be an anomaly.

“I don’t know how mentally tough we’ve been when we’ve gotten hit in the mouth early on,” Payton said. “When you play in this league, there’s going to be those momentum shifts and you’re going to have to be able to collect yourself and get on to the next play. We’ve struggled in that area.”

Lagniappe

The Saints, who were No. 1 in the NFL in third-down-conversion percentage entering the Carolina game, converted just one of their first 10 third-down opportunities. … Payton said he considered pulling quarterback Drew Brees in the fourth quarter but left him in with the understanding that he would get the ball out of his hands quickly on every pass attempt to avoid taking hits. … Payton praised tackle Bryce Harris, who replaced injured Terron Armstead in the first half, for playing through a tweaked ankle in the second half. … Payton said he counted eight dropped passes when he watched video of the game. … Payton said running back Khiry Robinson was available to play but, with the way the game got out of hand, Mark Ingram never needed a breather.