FOXBOROUGH -- As soundless as a figurative action is, one could almost hear the shift in gears.
An early two-touchdown lead against a team whose mental toughness has been tested far too many times this season should have set the tone for a comfortable drive into the gorgeous sunset outside Gillette Stadium yesterday.
But the Patriots, looking to maintain their speedy pace in cruise control, accidentally downshifted to neutral, and the laugher that should have been gave birth to the nail-biter that was.
In the end, however, the Patriots put enough pedal to metal to claim a 24-17 victory over New Orleans to post their first two-game winning streak of the season before an appreciative sellout crowd.
It was an emotional day for Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose father Steve passed away Saturday night. Belichick did not share that information with his team until his locker room postgame speech, though he acknowledged coaching the game ''with a heavy heart."
''That just shows the type of man that he is, the type of coach he is," Patriots receiver Deion Branch said. ''The fact that he can still focus on this game and coach the team to victory with all this lingering on his mind. It was hard, man."
The win proved to be more difficult than expected against the 2-8 Saints, who have now lost six straight games.
The Saints, game in fight but often inadequate in execution, scored the final 10 points of the contest, and took shots into the end zone on the last two plays before succumbing. Patriots safety Eugene Wilson intercepted Aaron Brooks as the clock expired to seal the victory.
''We just could never put these guys away," defensive end Richard Seymour said. ''They showed some resiliency and kept fighting to the end. We just have to do a better job of finishing.
''We would like to have the offense run the clock out at the end of the game and ride off into the sunset, but it really doesn't happen that way all the time."
It certainly hasn't happened much this season, as five of the Patriots' six victories have come by a touchdown or less.
''We like to keep it interesting," joked running back Patrick Pass, who rushed for 53 yards subbing for the injured Corey Dillon. ''As you can see from the first couple of Super Bowls, we like to go down and on the last play kick field goals."
Fortunately it did not come to that yesterday. The Patriots controlled the contest from the outset and led by 17 points after a 37-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal midway through the fourth quarter, before the Saints made one final, desperate push.
New England (6-4) helped by advancing the ball just 4 yards in its two possessions after taking a 24-7 advantage.
''At that point, [we] felt pretty good," quarterback Tom Brady said. ''We were up 17 and you don't want to be holding on when you're up 17 in the fourth quarter, but we just didn't execute the way we thought we could have."
But the Patriots' numbers were solid. Brady completed 15 of 29 passes for 222 yards and three touchdowns, including a beautiful 60-yard toss to Andre' Davis on a fly pattern, and a 1-yard dropoff to linebacker Mike Vrabel. Heath Evans had his second straight impressive outing with 74 yards on 16 carries, as the Patriots rushed for more than 100 yards for just the second time this season.
Defensively, the Patriots struggled yardage-wise, allowing 425 to the Saints, who entered averaging only 319 behind Brooks, their erratic signal caller. (New England gained 326 yards.)
Brooks (27 of 50 for 343 yards) became the third straight quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards against the Patriots' injury-plagued secondary. He hit Donte' Stallworth for a 12-yard score to close the gap to 24-14.
After New England managed one first down before being forced to punt, the Saints pulled to within a touchdown on a 46-yard John Carney field goal with 2:20 to play.
Seymour's desire to have the offense run out the clock was not fulfilled, as Brady and Co. not only lost 2 yards on the next possession (thanks in part to a holding penalty on tackle Brandon Gorin), but erased only 38 seconds off the clock.
The error-prone Saints started at their 22, after a penalty on the punt return, with just 1:36 remaining.
The Patriots went soft in the secondary, and Brooks attacked.
Three consecutive completions moved the ball into New England territory. He then scrambled for 20 yards to the 22, where he spiked the ball with 15 seconds left on the clock.
As Miami did in a fruitless attempt to tie the Patriots in the waning seconds a week ago, the Saints went after rookie cornerback Ellis Hobbs on the left side of the formation. Stallworth made the catch, but out of the back of the end zone with Hobbs all over him.
On the next play, Wilson and cornerback Artrell Hawkins, who signed with the team Wednesday, had Joe Horn double covered on the right side. Wilson made a leaping catch for his first pick of the year, and the Patriots' first winning streak of the 2005 season.
New Orleans helped the cause by electing not to try what would have been a 49-yard field goal on its first possession. A perfect punt to the Patriots' 2 only meant New England had to go 98 yards for the game's opening score.
In the third quarter, the Saints chose not to go for a fourth-and-1 at the Patriots' 43. Another nice punt by Mitch Berger pinned the Patriots at their 7. This time they drove 93 yards to another touchdown.
The Saints also turned the ball over on downs at the New England 27 and missed a 30-yard field goal.
But considering the win came with as depleted an offensive unit as the Patriots have fielded this season -- without receivers Troy Brown, David Givens, and Bethel Johnson, tight end Daniel Graham, offensive linemen Matt Light, Tom Ashworth, and Dan Koppen, and running backs Dillon and Kevin Faulk -- maybe they stepped on the gas as much as they could.
''We are just trying to hang in until we get some reinforcements," Brady said. ''It has been challenging for this team. Each week we go in and there is great anticipation for what we think we can accomplish. And you get out there, and we're fighting back.
''We're fighting. It seems like we're in every game in the fourth quarter. In the games we've won we've had to come back and really put plays together in the fourth quarter to win. It has been a challenging year for all of us.
''We just have to keep battling as hard as we can and lay it all out there every week. Hopefully, when we start to get the [injured] veterans back, that consistency will pick up a little bit."
Jerome Solomon can be reached at email@example.com