METAIRIE, La. (AP) Saints coach Sean Payton has been known to echo a catch phrase from his mentor, Bill Parcells, who'd mock media coverage of NFL teams by saying it's either a ''crisis or carnival'' from week to week, depending on the most recent result.
Payton hasn't used that line lately, though. Perhaps it's because his team's results really have vacillated that wildly over the past two games, from a dominant 49-21 rout of the Los Angeles Rams two games ago to an anemic 28-13 loss at home to Detroit on Sunday.
The lack of consistency has left New Orleans (5-7) mired in mediocrity for the third consecutive year. The Saints also know any continuation of their recent up-and-down performances won't get them to the postseason; even running the table over their final four games might not be enough.
''If it was easy enough to figure out why, we'd press a button to fix it,'' said tight end Coby Fleener, whose dropped pass in the end zone just before halftime forced the Saints to settle for a field goal against Detroit. ''It's not that easy to figure out.''
Two games behind NFC South co-leaders Tampa Bay and Atlanta, New Orleans still has a chance to make up most of that ground. It faces the Buccaneers twice in the next three weeks - this Sunday in Tampa and in the Superdome on Dec. 24 - and closes at the Falcons.
New Orleans' other game is at fellow wild-card contender Arizona (5-6-1).
The Saints likely need to win their final four games just to give themselves a chance, but the last time they had a streak that long was when they started 5-0 in 2013. They have not won more than two in a row this year.
Payton initially lambasted his team for a sluggish performance after Sunday's loss, but backtracked somewhat on Monday after reviewing video of the game.
''I was frustrated with how sloppy it was,'' Payton said. ''Guys were playing with great effort, but it was the antithesis of how we wanted to look. It wasn't sharp. We had eight penalties, and those are the things we've got to have cleaned up by this time of the year.''
Detroit, which had trailed in the fourth quarter of its first 11 games, led all the way in the Big Easy.
The New Orleans offense, which has spent most of the season ranked No. 1 in the league, was its biggest problem against Detroit. But the Saints also will need to pay better attention to detail on defense.
Detroit nickel and dimed its way down the field through three quarters with only one gain of 20 or more yards, but got a huge payoff on Matthew Stafford's 66-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate in the fourth period.
Payton said safety Von Bell stayed in the center of the field too long and should have been over to make a play on the ball. The Saints also struggled to keep Stafford in the pocket, contributing to his 341-yard day.
''It's something we were harping on all week, but that's what was happening,'' cornerback Delvin Breaux said. Stafford is ''a very athletic guy, and once he gets out of the pocket, he can make all the throws.''
Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston presents a similar problem. He has thrown 15 touchdown passes and only four interceptions as the Bucs have won six of eight, including their last four.
''He's surprisingly athletic,'' said Saints rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, a first-round pick out of Louisville who faced Winston when he was at Florida State. ''He may not look fast or nimble on film, but trying to get your hands on him is a task. He's going to try to move and get the ball to his playmakers.''
A loss on Sunday would virtually guarantee the Saints a third straight year out of the playoffs. Along with Jacksonville, New Orleans is one of two teams that have not been above. 500 at any point since the start of the 2014 season.
''It's got to be better or else guys will realize what happens when you don't win,'' right tackle Zach Strief, now in his 11th season under the Payton regime, said ominously. ''There will be guys who aren't here. It's the nature of the business.''
NOTES: Payton declined to confirm the specifics of the lower-right leg injury to TE Josh Hill, who was hurt against Detroit. Without Hill, who has 15 catches, Fleener and John Phillips are the Saints' only tight ends. Said Payton: ''We started the season with two for the early part of the year. We'll see how the roster shapes up and what we want to do.''
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