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Seeing change leads them to a sea change

FOXBOROUGH -- Survival in the National Football League is contingent on making adjustments. The survival of the Patriots as a playoff contender is pretty much based on the same thing.

Last season much of the talk was about the Patriots' remarkable 21-game winning streak. Yesterday the talk was that one thing to be thankful for on Thanksgiving Day is that the Patriots finally have won two games in a row. That's how quickly things can change and if you're not able to change with it you'll change too. The Patriots understand that, which is why they're still alive despite the difficulties of this pain-wracked season.

For the second week in a row, the Patriots clung to victory with a last-second stand against a threatening opponent, defeating the surprisingly spunky New Orleans Saints, 24-17, to improve to 6-4. It was not a pretty win and it was surprisingly difficult considering the Saints are 2-8 and at or near the bottom of the league in penalties, turnovers, and red zone offense. Still, for a team decimated by injuries, to win two in a row is an accomplishment in itself, and that is what the Patriots focused on.

They did not care that a week ago they barely escaped Miami with a win over the same Dolphin team Romeo Crennel's Browns spanked, 22-0, yesterday in Cleveland. They did not care that yesterday the team they beat is the same one that came to Razor Blade Field as the losers of five straight. They cared only about one thing -- making adjustments to a new reality and winning any way.

''You have to temper your expectations," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said after the Saints were subdued only after a big lead was almost blown and a final stand ended with a diving Eugene Wilson interception in the end zone. ''If the way we won the last couple of weeks is how we have to win -- then do it. I don't see us blowing anybody out, so get used to this.

''It would be easy to get frustrated and say, 'Last year, this. Last year, that.' We separate the years here. We separate the weeks and the days here," Bruschi continued. ''You can't think because we won 21 in a row we should win 31 in a row. You have to have the ability to adapt to the situation. When you're winning a game and losing a game, winning a game and losing a game, you just have to think about winning one game. Don't get too far ahead of yourself."

By not trying to get ahead of themselves in a season in which they've started four different offensive line combinations, lost six of the 10 defensive backs they started the year with, and watched their All-Pro defensive end, All-Pro linebacker, and All-Pro running back all become All-No-Go's, the Patriots have achieved a significant thing. They've survived well enough to still be playing meaningful games as December approaches.

''We made enough plays at the end to win those games," veteran tight end Christian Fauria said. ''We've won two in a row. Strike up the band. In this league it's good enough to win. Obviously, this is a different team than a year ago. We're in a different situation. For us to stay competitive we cannot have mental errors, especially when you're down and out like we're supposed to be.

''I'm on the bench [at the end of the game yesterday as the Saints were driving toward a potential tying touchdown] thinking, 'We're in the same precarious situation as last week.' This isn't the blueprint for success, but I don't think there is a blueprint. Why can't we keep winning this way?"

It would seem unlikely that Sunday after Sunday the Patriots can keep holding on at the end, but perhaps such thinking is born of a 21-game winning streak and two 14-2 seasons and Super Bowl championships back-to-back. Born of unrealistic expectations wisely not shared by the men who wear the Patriots' colors. To them, each season is a separate entity and so is each game. As long as they win enough of those games, regardless of how they do it, they know there will be a new season come January. A one-game elimination season. To get there they do not have to win 21 in a row. They do not have to win with ease. They merely have to win.

''They made the plays at the right time that we were not able to make at our right time," said Saints center LeCharles Bentley. ''That's why they're Super Bowl champs."

The Dolphins said the same thing a week ago. The champions made the plays. The challengers did not. Yet one has to wonder how many more times they can do that. How many more Sundays can the Patriots survive by a thin red-white-and-blue line? How many more times can they hold on at the end when the forces of evil are conspiring to defeat them?

''Championship teams make championship plays no matter how important the game is," Fauria said. ''We've made those plays in the past. We'd like to avoid the roller coaster, but it makes for good TV and good copy."

It does so long as they can keep finding a way to walk on the edges without slipping off. With a secondary so porous it would allow the Venus de Milo to pass for 300 yards (as they now have allowed three straight opponents to do), an offensive line that doesn't yet know each other's first names, and a running game anchored by a guy with barely 100 yards gained in his career until two weeks ago, life is not easy for these Patriots. That is not about to change any time soon because they are not the team that won 21 games and two Super Bowls in a row anymore. What they are is a team that knows what the truth is and has accepted it.

''Obviously we don't want to be in these situations [every game]," defensive end Richard Seymour said. ''We've been in them time and time again and been good enough to win. We'd like to have the offense running out the clock and we ride off into the sunset, but it really doesn't happen that way all the time. Things evolve. We know every game is going to be a dogfight. Every team is gunning for us. Nobody's having a pity party for us. They all come to beat us. That's their mentality. We have to understand the mentality other teams have coming to play us. I think we shouldn't be in these situations, but when you win the reality of it is it's a little bit of a confidence-builder."

Week by week. Thin red-white-and-blue line by thin red-white-and-blue line. One win in a row to two wins in a row to who knows what will happen in Kansas City Sunday? No one knows. But the Patriots know one thing. They know if they can just keep doing what they've done the last two Sundays they'll still be alive when it counts most.

''I think things are getting better," said linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. ''Things can get better. We could make it easier on ourselves, but any time you win, things went well enough. We weren't thinking about winning 21 in a row. We weren't think about winning two in a row. We were only thinking about pulling out one ballgame. Just because we won last week didn't mean we'd win today. Just because we won today doesn't mean we'll win next week. But we expect to win. We look at this one, take a deep breath, and go forward."

Go forward accepting reality the way it is . . . and the victories however they come along.

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