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