METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints escaped Carolina with a 12-9 victory Monday night.
They went 2-1 on a road trip that concluded their schedule away from home.
They need just one win or one Rams loss to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
So things are going really well for the Saints.
But they have a nagging concern about their offense, which played well below its lofty standards throughout the road stretch. New Orleans scored just 50 points -- and that includes a 25-point second half in Tampa Bay a week ago -- and they didn't score a first-half touchdown in any of those games.
"We need to start better. No question," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "Just the details, things we need to get cleaned up. I'm confident we're going to do that; I feel like we know what they are."
Penalties were part of the problem against the Panthers as the Saints' offense was penalized seven times.
"All we had to do was stop shooting ourselves in the foot," guard Larry Warford said. "That was kind of the story of the day for us: too many penalties, too many mental mistakes. Just simple things, fundamentals. We're a great offense, and we know that."
The penalties have not been an ongoing problem. Mostly it has been an inability to execute on a consistent basis that has held back the offense.
"I think [the slump] makes us look at ourselves and say we can't just roll a helmet on the field and be a great offense," Warford said.
Warford was one of just two offensive linemen to finish Monday's game where they started it. The other was tackle Ryan Ramczyk, Warford's partner on the right side.
New Orleans already was playing without injured left tackle Terron Armstead, and his replacement, Jermon Bushrod, was injured during the game, as was center Max Unger.
Andrus Peat moved from left guard to left tackle after Bushrod was hurt, rookie Will Clapp took Peat's spot at guard and Cameron Tom replaced Unger.
Brees completed 23-of-35 passes for 203 yards. He did not pass for a touchdown and he threw an interception for the fourth consecutive game after having just one through the first 10 games.
He is having one of the most efficient seasons of his career, but even with weapons such as dual-threat running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram II -- as well as wide receiver Michael Thomas -- the offense has not been able to get back on track. It has home games against Pittsburgh and Carolina to try to fix things before the playoffs start.
"We've got to get it figured out," Kamara said. "We've been starting slow. We take the responsibility. We've just got to make plays and do what we've got to do to get the offense rolling. Whether it's me, Mark, Mike, somebody's got to step up and create a spark early."
Brees said there's "no question" the offense needs to be better, but three subpar performances produced just one loss thanks to outstanding defensive play.
"You find ways to win, win in a lot of different ways," Brees said. "[We're] battle tested. Listen, these last two weeks we've had to come back and win in the fourth quarter. The great teams find a way. They believe. They feel like we're all gonna step up, we're gonna do this, somebody's gonna make a play.
"Results-driven business, right?"
K Wil Lutz has tied Pro Football Hall of Famer Morten Andersen's franchise record for consecutive field goals made with 25. He has made 27-of-28 field goals this season. "It's cool to do anything that Morten Andersen has done, but I don't really think about it," Lutz told the New Orleans Advocate. "That's something I'll reflect on when the season is over. We still have two more games in the regular season so I'm not worried about any records right now. We are trying to make every kick we are asked to kick and whatever records it leads to, it is what it is."
C Will Clapp made his NFL debut Monday night after being inactive for the first 13 games of his rookie season. The seventh-round draft choice from LSU knew he would be active and see limited action in the absence of reserve lineman Michael Ola, who was sidelined by a knee injury suffered a week earlier. But after a few early snaps as a third tight end in the Saints' jumbo package, Clapp was pressed into duty at left guard after Jermon Bushrod was injured and Andrus Peat moved from guard to tackle. Clapp wound up playing 19 snaps. "If you would have told me when I was a little kid that I was going to make my debut in the NFL on a Monday night, I wouldn't have believed you," Clapp told the Advocate. "I had a blast playing. I still have some things to correct. I hadn't played since the preseason. I was super pumped at the hotel and couldn't wait to get here. I was ready. The coaches had prepared me all week. I was confident. Overall I thought it was a solid first outing."
WR Tommylee Lewis' first rushing attempt of the season was one he'd rather forget. The Saints were poised to score a touchdown and take a two-score lead or at least kick a field goal and take a six-point lead late in the fourth quarter when Lewis took the ball on a sweep and gained four yards before lunging toward the goal line and fumbling. The ball flew over the pylon and out of bounds for a touchback that gave the Panthers a chance to tie or take the lead. Fortunately for Lewis, the Saints' defense got the ball back on downs and New Orleans ran out the clock.
QB Drew Brees has averaged just 177 passing yards in the last three games. During that stretch he has thrown two touchdown passes and three interceptions. He also had a 2-point conversion pass intercepted by Panthers rookie DB Donte Jackson, who returned the ball all the way to the end zone to earn two points for Carolina.