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