FOXBORO — His touchdown dance may not have been anything to write home about, but the smile on Brandon Lloyd’s face as he was congratulated after his first TD of the day said it all.
No. 85 was the happiest man in New England last night.
After a nightmare six weeks in which the receiver seemed to have been fazed out by the Patriots’ offense, Lloyd finally looked the part of a go-to guy last night, catching one touchdown and recovering a fumble for another score in New England’s 42-14 victory over AFC No. 1 seed Houston.
“He was excellent for us,” said fellow receiver Matt Slater. “He is someone that takes the game and his job very seriously, and it really paid off for us tonight. He was huge.”
With the hot lights of Monday Night Football on him, Lloyd shined with nine catches for 89 yards, highlighted by his outstanding 37-yard touchdown. He then turned in a heads-up play when he ran down Danny Woodhead’s fumble in the end zone for his second TD.
Lloyd’s emergence could not have come at a better time for the Patriots, who were without top pass-catcher Rob Gronkowski and speedy slot guy Julian Edelman due to injuries, while Aaron Hernandez is still not at 100 percent.
But it also could not have arrived at a better time for Lloyd, who had gone from the toast of the town to the talk of Boston sports radio for all of the wrong reasons.
The speedster arrived in New England in the offseason with tons of hype, many seeing visions of the record-setting 2007 offense with Lloyd in the Randy Moss big-play role.
After a decent start, highlighted by a 108-yard night against Baltimore, the season started to slip away from Lloyd.
Beginning with the Oct. 21 Jets game, he began seeing fewer and fewer passes from Tom Brady, catching just 16 passes over the next six games, never more than five in a game and twice finishing with just a single grab, including just one for 10 yards — on only one target despite playing 60 plays — last week in a win over Miami.
There was plenty of criticism for Lloyd, with fans and media alike wondering if he had fallen out of favor with Brady and the Pats coaching staff, possibly due to drops and general poor play. Some wondered if it could be a character problem, possibly the reason the 31-year-old has played for six different teams in his 10 NFL seasons.
Even Patriots legend Troy Brown was critical of Lloyd, saying on TV he didn’t “show up” for recent games.
“I can’t speak for (Lloyd),” said Slater. “But, his work and preparation hasn’t changed at all. He continued to work the same, and no matter if the ball was coming his way or not he was still ready to play.”
Last night, Lloyd was certainly ready to play.
On the Pats’ second possession of the game, Lloyd grabbed a sweet 14-yard pass, tip-toeing the sidelines to stay in bounds. Then, two plays later, he flew past his defender, raised his hand to show his 5-yard separation from the defensive back and Brady hit him for a 37-yard touchdown pass.
“Tom ran some great play-action,” said Lloyd. “We had worked hard on that play all week, and coach (Josh) McDaniels called it at the right time and it worked.”
He could have had another long touchdown before halftime, but Brady missed him wide open running downfield, and had a long gain disallowed for a Hernandez penalty.
While he continued to be a target for Brady, Lloyd’s next highlight play came in unexpected fashion.
Brady dumped a pass off to running back Danny Woodhead, who appeared headed for the end zone. But Texans All-World defensive end J.J. Watts came from behind to punch the ball loose for a fumble.
The ball squirted into the end zone, where Lloyd alertly used his speed to outrace defenders and pounce on it for the touchdown that all but closed out the victory.
“We were doing out best to block downfield,” he said. “Unfortunately it popped out, but I was there to get it.”
Lloyd’s nine catches were tied for his most for the season, and the 89 yards were second, trailing just the Baltimore game.
But, more importantly, No. 85 showed that he was still a part of the offense, and in fact a major part that Brady can trust when the heat is on.
The chance for Randy Moss numbers may now be long gone, but the Patriots will need performances like this from Lloyd for the offense to continue to dominate.
He’s a guy that loves to work and loves his craft,” said Slater. “We know that we can trust him.”
TIM JEAN/Staff photo. Salah Baladi, 19, a senior at Methuen High School practices soccer drills in the field near his home. Baladi, who moved here from Morocco, is hoping to play at UMass Lowell. 11/30/13
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