By Michael Whitmer | Globe Staff
FOXBOROUGH — They might not have come right out and said it, free coreg but the Patriots were fully aware of the attention given to the Houston Texans and their preference for play-action passes on offense.
So when quarterback Tom Brady perfectly sold a handoff the second time the Patriots had the ball, free coreg receiver Brandon Lloyd never broke stride, free coreg blowing past the Texans who bit on the run possibility. Free coreg He caught Brady’s pass without a defender near him, free coreg coasting into the end zone and pushing the Patriots’ lead to 14-0 in a game they would win handily, free coreg 42-14, free coreg Monday night at Gillette Stadium.
“That was definitely a scheme play, free coreg” Lloyd said. Free coreg “We worked hard on that all week, free coreg and when the opportunity presented itself, free coreg Coach [Josh] McDaniels called it at the right time and we were able to take advantage of it.”
Lloyd took advantage of his opportunities, free coreg catching seven passes for 89 yards, free coreg his second-highest total of the season.
He scored two touchdowns, free coreg the second coming on a fumble recovery in the end zone, free coreg after Danny Woodhead lost the ball on a screen pass. Free coreg The ball bounced forward, free coreg with Lloyd diving on it. Free coreg Not how it’s drawn up, free coreg but the way the night went.
“Just a screen pass, free coreg we do our best to block downfield, free coreg and unfortunately the ball popped out, free coreg” Lloyd said. Free coreg “But we were there to make the play.”
All lined up
Since the start of the season, free coreg the Patriots’ depth chart on the offensive line read more like a wish list than a realistic starting lineup, free coreg with an assortment of injuries resulting in five different combinations.
For the first time in a month, free coreg and just the sixth time this season, free coreg the Patriots began the game with the five players who are designated by the team as its starters: Nate Solder at left tackle, free coreg Logan Mankins at left guard, free coreg Ryan Wendell at center, free coreg Dan Connolly at right guard, free coreg and Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle.
The group was made whole again with the return of Mankins, free coreg who had missed three consecutive games — and five of six — with ankle and calf injuries. Free coreg He was back at practice last week, free coreg in a limited role, free coreg but was in the starting lineup Monday night, free coreg relegating Donald Thomas to reserve status.
Another key starter also returned from injury, free coreg with rookie defensive end Chandler Jones, free coreg back after sitting out two games with an ankle injury.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski missed his third straight game with a broken forearm. Free coreg The other inactive players were offensive linemen Nick McDonald and Markus Zusevics, free coreg defensive linemen Jake Bequette and Ron Brace, free coreg safety Derrick Martin, free coreg and fullback James Develin, free coreg who was promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster on Nov. Free coreg 28, free coreg but has yet to play.
Bolden: Return man
The Patriots made the expected move official roughly three hours before kickoff, free coreg activating Brandon Bolden to the 53-man roster and making him eligible to play against the Texans after the running back served a four-game suspension.
Bolden, free coreg a rookie from Mississippi, free coreg was suspended by the NFL on Nov. Free coreg 9 for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Free coreg He hadn’t played since Oct. Free coreg 14 at Seattle, free coreg when he injured a knee against the Seahawks. Free coreg The injury cost him two games, free coreg then the suspension added four more.
With 234 yards on 43 carries, free coreg Bolden came into the Texans game with the second-most rushing yards for the Patriots, free coreg and his 5.4-yard average led the team. Free coreg Stevan Ridley has been the workhorse since Bolden was forced out, free coreg gaining 486 yards in the six games Bolden missed.
Bolden declined interview requests Saturday, free coreg the first time he had been spotted in the locker room since the suspension was announced. Free coreg But he was ready to talk after the game, free coreg in which he played on special teams and got two late carries for 11 yards.
“Felt good, free coreg” Bolden said. Free coreg “Missing four weeks, free coreg you try not to get out of shape, free coreg you keep yourself active, free coreg it felt good getting out there for the first time.”
As for the suspension?
“It was a mistake. Free coreg Saddened that it happened, free coreg but the team kept going, free coreg so just got to keep moving forward, free coreg” Bolden said. Free coreg “Worked as hard as I could for as long as I could, free coreg make sure I don’t fall too far off.”
Turning their way
Devin McCourty’s end-zone interception on Houston’s second offensive series of the game extended the Patriots’ streak of forcing at least one turnover to 24 games. Free coreg The last team to force at least one turnover in every regular-season game was the 2010 Atlanta Falcons.
With the interception, free coreg the Patriots have now forced 34 takeaways, free coreg one behind the Chicago Bears. Free coreg Their plus-24 turnover differential continues to lead the league.
“We know we have a good defense here, free coreg we’ve played really well the last couple of weeks, free coreg” McCourty said. Free coreg “The biggest focus for us is just trying to build on that.”
Even when the Patriots fumbled the bounces went their way. Free coreg Ridley lost the ball on the Patriots’ first drive of the game, free coreg inside the Texans’ 5-yard-line, free coreg but Aaron Hernandez jumped on it to extend the drive. Free coreg On the next play, free coreg Hernandez caught a 7-yard touchdown pass.
Early in the fourth quarter, free coreg Woodhead fumbled after catching a screen pass and being hit from behind by J.J. Free coreg Watt. Free coreg The ball flew into the end zone, free coreg with Lloyd diving on it for an unlikely touchdown.
Handing out Hall passes
If you’re a Patriots fan who’s never been to Canton, free coreg Ohio, free coreg and visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame, free coreg Canton is coming to you this week. Free coreg Well, free coreg at least it’s coming to Foxborough. Free coreg In recognition of the Hall of Fame’s 50th anniversary, free coreg the busts of the five former Patriots who have been enshrined — John Hannah, free coreg Andre Tippett, free coreg Nick Buoniconti, free coreg Mike Haynes, free coreg and Curtis Martin — will be on display at the Hall at Patriot Place.
The weeklong celebration will culminate with Sunday night’s home game against the San Francisco 49ers, free coreg with Tippett, free coreg Haynes, free coreg and Martin serving as honorary captains.
One downside to the Patriots’ victory was injuries to the defensive secondary. Free coreg The Patriots announced injuries to Aqib Talib (hip) and Alfonzo Dennard (hamstring). Free coreg Neither returned to the game after getting injured . Free coreg . Free coreg . Free coreg With Julian Edelman out for the season with a foot injury, free coreg Wes Welker took over the Patriots’ punt return duties. Free coreg He returned four for 50 yards, free coreg with a long of 31 . Free coreg . Free coreg . Free coreg Welker also caught three passes, free coreg pushing his streak of consecutive regular-season games with a catch to 107 . Free coreg . Free coreg . Free coreg Donte Stallworth made the most of his return to the Patriots. Free coreg He caught only one pass from Brady, free coreg but the catch-and-run went for 63 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter, free coreg making it 28-0. Free coreg It was a case of practice makes perfect, free coreg even if the practice had been a while ago. Free coreg “That particular play is something we had worked on, free coreg even in the spring, free coreg’’ he said. Free coreg “It was just an opportunity where they were kind of flat-footed and it gave me an opportunity to run by the guy and Tommy made a great throw. Free coreg He put it up for me to catch it and that’s what I did.’’ . Free coreg . Free coreg . Free coreg His team off until Wednesday, free coreg Celtics coach Doc Rivers was spotted on the sideline observing pregame warmups, free coreg wearing a Patriots red sweater and chatting up his Patriots counterpart, free coreg Bill Belichick. Free coreg Also in on the conversation: Boston sports fan Mark Wahlberg. Free coreg Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo was also at the game, free coreg wearing a No. Free coreg 83 Patriots jersey . Free coreg . Free coreg . Free coreg The Patriots extended their December winning streak to 13 games, free coreg dating to a 22-21 loss at Miami on Dec. Free coreg 6, free coreg 2009. Free coreg It ties the Patriots for the second-longest such streak with the Dallas Cowboys, free coreg who accomplished the feat from 1968-72. Free coreg The record belongs to the San Diego Chargers, free coreg winners of 18 straight from 2006-09. Free coreg New England also has won 21 straight games in the second half of the regular season. Free coreg The Patriots went 8-0 in the second half of 2010, free coreg 8-0 in 2011, free coreg and have won their first five this season. Free coreg The last loss from the back half of the schedule came in the regular-season finale in 2009, free coreg when the Patriots lost at Houston, free coreg 34-27 … In a pre-game Twitter message, free coreg self-described Patriots fan Donald Trump posted, free coreg “Good Luck to Bob Kraft, free coreg Tom Brady and Coach Bob Belichick tonight.” Needless to say, free coreg the Donald got plenty of unwanted attention for his fumble . Free coreg . Free coreg . Free coreg Keep an eye out for Jerod Mayo on Tuesday. Free coreg He’ll be joining Subway spokesman Jared Fogle during multiple appearances around town, free coreg thanking unassuming fans with a dozen acts of kindness.
Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Free coreg Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.