Use the personality of the opposition. The easiest way to adjust difficulty is to either focus fire on a single PC or spread the damage out. Particularly in the heroic tier, few PCs can stand up against concentrated fire; this is particularly true if the enemy coordinates, delays their actions, and all go immediately after the leader has gone. Conversely, most fights will go far better for the PCs if the monsters aren't focused, because there's little chance a PC will drop before the leader can do something about it.
In order to make this work, your NPCs and monsters need to have personality, because your players need to believe that they'd change tactics. In your specific case, I'd start talking about overconfidence -- actually give the players a window into the minds of the enemy. It's all smoke and mirrors, of course, because you determine what the enemy is thinking, but that's roleplaying for you.
For example: "Oh, he thinks they've got this in the bag, he's going to go for the individual glory and try and take down that pesky mage in the back all by himself." And then the goblin peels off from the pack and heads for the mage. Now the paladin's not facing as much incoming damage, and he has a better chance to survive.
It's helpful to set this up ahead of time. From the start of a fight, I'll generally be talking about what the enemies are thinking. I'll have them picking fights with specific PCs, and so on. That makes it easier for the players to accept it when the motivations change.
If you don't provide the explanation, it won't seem real. If you do, it'll make sense to your players and they'll buy into it.
Along these lines, note that it's easier to crank the difficulty up than it is to dial it down. It's more believable that the enemy will get desperate and fight harder than it is to believe they'll get cocky and fight less hard. Overall, you should use both techniques, but lean towards spreading damage around a bit at first and dialing it into a specific PC later on.
The other easy trick for making things tougher: bring in another wave of enemies. Again, this is easier than arbitrarily deciding that a bunch of enemies will flee the field, particularly if they're winning.
Finally, don't shy away from death, because it doesn't have to be death. PCs do tend to have to run sometimes -- in the Dungeon Master's Guide, this is specifically mentioned. They don't have to win every fight. If they lose, think about why the monsters would take them prisoner or leave their bodies there. This can spawn much more interesting roleplay than a simple victory... and once they've had the relief of waking up rather than dying once, they're more likely to believe that their enemies can defeat them. And that'll make it feel realer when they don't.