]()It would have been a great time for the Patriots to score a convincing win and send a message to the rest of the NFL that they remain a serious threat.
Instead, after having led by 17 with 7:55 to play, New England wound up sending their defense back on the field with 1:36 remaining to try to stop the Saints from scoring a game-tying touchdown. The Saints proceeded to move the ball 56 yards on four plays, and the victory was not secure until Patriots safety Eugene Wilson picked off Saint QB Aaron Brooks in the end zone with nine seconds remaining.
This should have been a banner day for the New England defense. The Saints came to Foxboro riding a five-game losing streak, sporting a 2-7 record, averaging a paltry 15.8 points a game and leading the NFL in giveaways with 27 (13 interceptions and 14 fumbles).
The Patriots, meanwhile, were finally experiencing some overdue health and stability on defense. Defensive end Richard Seymour and LB Tedy Bruschi were back on the field together for the second week in a row, and Defensive Coordinator Eric Mangini was able to field the same 11 starters in back-to-back games for the first time this season.
Early in the game, it looked like the rout was on, as the Patriots took a 14-0 lead with two scoring drives. The first march was especially impressive. After the Saints downed a Mitch Berger punt on the Patriots 2-yard line, New England ran off a 16-play, 98-yard drive highlighted by a pair of long Tom Brady passes to TE Benjamin Watson that went for 29 and 23 yards. RB Patrick Pass carried six times for 23 yards on the drive, and the touchdown came on a 2-yard pass to Deion Branch.
The second drive was more sudden. After a poor Berger punt went out of bounds at the New Orleans 48-yard line, New England needed just five plays to reach pay dirt. They covered more than half the distance on a 29-yard pass from Brady to Pass and scored on one-yard Brady pass to linebacker/part-time tight end Mike Vrabel. It was the sixth catch of Vrabel's career, all from Brady and all good for touchdowns.
The Patriots' defense got the job done early too, keeping the Saints off the board until 1:16 remained in the first half. New Orleans had a little success on their first drive, picking up two first downs and moving the ball 55 yards, but they punted when the drive stalled at the New England 32-yard line. The Patriots then forced three-and-outs on the Saints' next two possessions. New Orleans didn't get another first down until 9:03 was left in the first half.
The Saints drew to within a touchdown at 14-7 with 1:16 remaining in the first half, when Brooks hit Donte Stallworth for a 7-yard touchdown pass. The Patriots went back up by two touchdowns, 21-7, when Brady and Andre Davis connected on a 60-yard touchdown pass with 4:27 remaining in the third quarter, and made it 24-7 on a 37-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal with just 7:55 remaining in the game.
The Patriots should have cruised to victory, but the Saints had other ideas. Aaron Stecker jump-started the Saints with a 46-yard return of the subsequent kickoff, giving his team a first down at the Patriots' 48-yard line. Brooks found his rhythm immediately, connecting on five of his next seven passes for 45 yards, including a 12-yard scoring pass to Stallworth that made the score 24-14.
The Patriots then got two chances to put the game on ice, but they failed both times. First they got the ball back with 4:54 to play and needed only one long, slow drive to seal the victory. Instead, they picked up only six net yards, with the drive's lowlight coming when Pass was dropped for a 10-yard loss while trying to get around right end on 3rd-and-5.
A Josh Miller punt gave the Saints the ball back at their own 38-yard line with 3:28 to play. The Saints ran only 1:08 off the game clock as they moved the ball 34 yards to set up a 46-yard John Carney field goal that made it 24-17.
Berger's kickoff gave New England the ball with 2:14 to play, and once again the Patriots could not seal the deal, going three-and-out and taking only 38 seconds off the clock.
Another Miller punt set the Saints up at their own 22, and Brooks completed three passes for a combined 36 yards then picked up 22 yards on a scramble. With 15 seconds remaining, the Saints might have had several shots at the end zone, but Wilson stepped up with an end-zone interception that finally put the Saints to rest.
The Patriots came out of the game with two positives: a victory, and an absence of new injuries. With the win, the Patriots raised their record to 6-4, built a two-game lead over the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East, and won back-to-back for the first time this season.
By stemming the loss of players to injury, the Patriots moved a step closer to good health. RB Corey Dillon and WR David Givens sat out with injuries, but both are expected back. The defense was without reserve LB Monty Beisel.
In the absence of Dillon and Givens, the offense got a major boost for the second week in a row from reserve FB Heath Evans and from Watson. Evans carried the ball 16 times for 74 yards, and Watson caught four passes for a team-leading 66 yards.
Brady had a decent day passing, completing 15 of 29 passes for 222 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked three times while playing behind an offensive line that has only one starter (guard Stephen Neal) back from the '04 season. Starters Dan Koppen, Matt Light and Tom Ashworth are out with injuries, following the offseason departure of Joe Andruzzi as a free agent.
The line, which now features rookies Nick Kaczur and Logan Mankins on the left side and reserves Russ Hochstein and Brandon Gorin at center and right tackle, respectively, succeeded in opening some nice holes for Evans and Pass (13 carries for 53 yards). The Patriots totaled 132 rushing yards against a New Orleans rush defense that entered the game ranked 30th in the NFL.
New England's defense held New Orleans to 17 points, but Brooks completed 27 of 50 passes for 343 yards. The Patriots did much better against the run, holding the Saints to 87 yards on 21 carries. New England set the tone early, holding the Saints to three yards or less on each of their first six runs. Former Patriot Antowain Smith led the Saints with 32 yards on 11 carries.
Notes: Steve Belichick, father of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, died Saturday night of heart failure at age 86. … Vrabel led the defense with 11 tackles, including eight solos. Bruschi had nine tackles. … Wilson's interception was the Patriots' only takeaway. The Saints made fewer than two turnovers in a game for the first time since Oct. 2 … Mike Stone became the first player in seven weeks to start two consecutive games at strong safety, ending a string of five games in which a different player had started at the position. The starters who preceded Stone were Randall Gay, Arturo Freeman, James Sanders and Guss Scott. … Ellis Hobbs started his second straight game at cornerback and made six tackles. … Hank Poteat and Artrell Hawkins both saw action at cornerback. Troy Brown dressed but did not play. … Brady fumbled on a second-quarter sack, and the Saints recovered but failed to score on the subsequent possession … Saints DE Will Smith was whistled for three penalties on one fourth-quarter play. … Four Saints receivers each caught six passes: Stallworth, Stecker, Joe Horn and Zach Hilton. … Stecker rushed seven times for 25 yards, gained 72 yards on his six catches and returned four kickoffs for 114 yards. … The Patriots have not held any opponent under 16 points this season. Last year, opponents scored 15 points or less eight times in 16 regular season games. … The Patriots play the Chiefs in Kansas City next Sunday.