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