These days, the Patriots would be satisfied with winning two in a row.
New England tries to win back-to-back games for the first time this season when it hosts struggling New Orleans.
Though still atop the AFC East standings, the Patriots and their depleted offense suffered another blow in last week’s 23-16 win over the Miami Dolphins when center Dan Koppen, who had started 46 straight games, was lost for the season with a shoulder injury.
Four offensive starters already were missing from the lineup, and running back Corey Dillon was added to the list. Dillon entered nursing a sprained left ankle, and was limited to two plays after straining his right calf. The seven-time 1,000-yard rusher has only 441 yards on the ground this season.
Yet the Patriots, who have alternated wins and losses through nine games, remain one game ahead of the Buffalo Bills and two in front of the Dolphins in the division.
Coach Bill Belichick, whose team has gone an NFL-best 40-6 after Nov. 1 over the last four seasons, is confident New England’s sixth-ranked offense will continue to put up numbers with or without its familiar faces.
“We’re going to pretty much run whatever we’re going to run against the opponent, based on what we think is best,” he said. “Whoever’s carrying it is carrying it, whether it’s Corey or somebody else.”
That somebody else may be Heath Evans. Evans ran for a career-high 84 yards on 17 carries against the Dolphins after totaling 108 yards in his first four NFL seasons. Evans was signed by the Patriots on Nov. 1, one week after being cut by Miami.
Tom Brady brought New England from behind twice in the second half, throwing for the game-winning score with 2:16 left. Brady has engineered 21 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter in his career, including four this season. His 2,560 passing yards lead the NFL.
“As usual, Tom played his best football when it counted,” Belichick said.
“This is one of those great games that went back and forth,” Belichick said. “It turned into a track meet at the end. I’m proud of the guys for hanging in there.”
In order to avoid a track meet against the Saints, the Patriots will need more help from a defense that was nearing full strength before losing defensive back Randall Gay, who injured his ankle against the Dolphins.
Gay became New England’s sixth defensive back to be placed on injured reserve, yet another blow for the NFL’s 31st-ranked defense that has been a stronghold in New England during the Belichick era.
The Patriots have given up an average of 378.1 yards per game, better only than the San Francisco 49ers (397.1). New England finished ninth in defense last season, allowing 310.8 yards a contest.
Coming off a much-needed bye week, the Saints have lost five straight games and seven of eight since opening with a 23-20 victory at Carolina.
New Orleans has been outscored 155-74 during its losing streak and has tallied more than 17 points once in that span.
In a 20-17 loss to the Chicago Bears on Nov. 6, Antowain Smith rushed for 110 yards—his most since he had 121 on Dec. 20, 2003, while with the Patriots — but the Saints came up short on third-and-1 and had to punt with under five minutes remaining.
The Bears then went 65 yards and won the game on Robbie Gould’s 28-yard field goal with 6 seconds left.
“We just cannot seem to get that one little play here and there that gives you a better chance of winning at the end,” Saints offensive tackle Wayne Gandy said. “You’d hope you could take that ball with four minutes to go and get a field goal. We created that third-and-1. It wasn’t successful.”
Smith has done a solid job in the backfield since Deuce McAllister was lost for the season due to a knee injury in Week 5.
A nine-year veteran, Smith has rushed for 287 yards in starting three of the last four games, averaging 5.9 yards per carry.
Aaron Brooks will look to get the passing game back on track after he was held under 200 yards for the second straight week. He completed 16 of 26 passes for 170 yards against the Bears, throwing one touchdown and two interceptions.
Brooks has passed for 200-plus yards only three times this season after accomplishing the feat on 12 occasions in 2004.
The Patriots are 7-3 all-time against the Saints, but just 3-3 at home.