METAIRIE, La. — As the Saints head into the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, they're admittedly anxious about recent stints of sluggishness that have plagued their normally prolific offense.
Twice in the past four games, the Saints' defense has intercepted three passes. But New Orleans still lost those both games after the offense couldn't close the deal.
"It's up to us. That's a momentum thing," Saints center Max Unger said Monday. "That's maturity as an offense and being able to capitalize on other team's mistakes, because (an opponent is) not supposed to be able to turn the ball over that many times and be able to win games. That falls squarely on the offense taking advantage of those turnovers."
The Saints won the NFC South on the strength of an 11-5 record and by sweeping both regular season games against Carolina, which also fished 11-5 and opens the playoffs as a wild card at New Orleans on Sunday.
There are various ways to look at how the Saints wound up here. One could say they earned the division crown by going 11-3 in their last 14 games after opening 0-2. One could also say they backed into their first division title since 2011 by going 2-2 in their last four games and needing help in the form of a Panthers loss on the final day of the regular season.
In any event, the magic and momentum that seemed to surround New Orleans' eight-game winning streak has been replaced in the past month by inconsistency in meaningful, late-season games.
Asked if he was generally pleased with his offense, which ranked second overall in the NFL this season with 391.2 yards per game, Saints coach Sean Payton said, "No."
"There's things we've got to improve on if we're going to play well in the playoffs," Payton said Monday. "Our third-down numbers need to be better. I thought our tempo yesterday was sluggish, offensively. We've got to eliminate the pre-snap penalties where we're moving. So I think there's a lot of work for us to do this week."
The Saints finished the regular season ranked 19th in third-down efficiency after converting six of 12 in a regular-season ending 31-24 loss at Tampa Bay on Sunday.
"If you're not converting a lot of those third downs, all of a sudden you're not taking advantage of a turnover or a takeaway," Payton said.
In Atlanta in Week 14, the Saints intercepted Matt Ryan three times, but Drew Brees' late interception in the end zone ended final offensive series in which the Saints could have taken the lead or tied with a field goal. On Sunday against the Buccaneers, the Saints had the ball with one-point lead late in the fourth quarter, but were unable to get enough first downs to run out the clock. That proved costly when Tampa Bay won on a 39-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left.
"There were some missed opportunities. Obviously, we could've done better," quarterback Drew Brees said after the game. "I would've liked to just finish the game out there at the end with us possessing it and just getting another first down or at least get us in a position to get a field goal was really the objective. That part was upsetting."
The Saints scored only two offensive touchdowns at Tampa Bay, the other on a kickoff return by rookie Alvin Kamara, who also had a TD rushing.
"A lot of things we did were self-inflicted, so we got to correct that," Kamara said. "Now it's time for the playoffs. We're on a mission."
The Saints' offense had some of its usual bright spots. Kamara had 128 yards from scrimmage on nine runs and six catches. Leading receiver Michael Thomas caught six passes for 94 yards.
Brees completed 73 percent of his passes (22 of 30), and in the process set a single-season NFL record with his 72 percent completion rate for the entire campaign.
But the Saints weren't able to get quite enough production from other players, particularly at pivotal junctures, to take control of a game against a last-place team that finished 5-11.
"We've had our moments where offensively, defensively and specials teams, we have played well enough to be the best," Brees said. "Now, we have to do that on a consistent enough basis in order to move on."