FOXBOROUGH — Entering a two-game stretch against the team with the best record in the AFC and a team with one of the best records in the NFC, the Patriots could use all the healthy players they can find.
Two starters, one on offense and one on defense, returned to practice Thursday, creating the possibility that they’ll be able to contribute in Monday’s prime-time game against the Houston Texans.
Left guard Logan Mankins and defensive end Chandler Jones both participated in Thursday’s workout, the Patriots’ first full practice of the week. Both also participated in Wednesday’s light walkthrough.
Mankins has missed three straight games, and four of the past five, with ankle and calf injuries. Jones, a rookie who has six sacks and three forced fumbles, hasn’t played since suffering an ankle injury against the Colts Nov. 18.
Neither Mankins nor Jones was seen in the Patriots locker room following practice. But that didn’t stop others from discussing their possible return.
“It’s just good to see guys back there getting back into the swing of things — any game,’’ said Donald Thomas, who has started for Mankins at left guard. “They’re probably going to be one of the best defensive lines that we’ll face this year, so to have everyone ready to go is a good thing.’’
Offensive lineman Nick McDonald was one of two Patriots who missed practice on Thursday — tight end Rob Gronkowski was the other — so almost all of the pieces to the offensive line, including the five projected starters at the beginning of the season, were on the field.
Right guard Dan Connolly, who has dealt with a back injury most of the season and played through it (missing just one game), was also at practice, but in a limited role.
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back/knee) was also limited in practice. Vollmer sat out the Thanksgiving game with the Jets, but played all 81 snaps against the Dolphins last Sunday.
Mr. First Nighter
Win or lose, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub will complete an impressive list with Monday’s game. Foxborough is the only league city in which he has never played a game.
Gillette Stadium isn’t the only stadium left for Schaub, though.
“I’ve played in Dallas, but not since their new stadium has been built,’’ he said.
Schaub is 1-1 in his career against the Patriots. He threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-28 loss in 2005 when he was with the Atlanta Falcons, then threw for 303 yards and two scores in a 34-27 win by Houston to close the 2009 regular season.
“I remember giving Tom Brady a little bit too much time for the two-minute drill to go down and kick a field goal against us to beat us [in 2005], so I do remember that pretty well,’’ Schaub said. “It’s a team we’ve played before, but a team out of our division that we don’t face very often. A team that presents some pretty good challenges for us.’’
Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork has spent a good chunk of the week watching tape of the Texans, and likes what he sees from the Patriots’ 11-1 opponent, starting with Schaub at quarterback.
What does Wilfork think is the most important thing Schaub is doing?
“Protecting the football,’’ Wilfork said. “This guy, he’s a winner, he knows what it takes to win. Being able to go out and orchestrate great drives, protecting the ball. Any time you have an offense that can take control of a game like that, they’re going to be pretty successful.
“It’s just like anybody else: If you can’t protect the ball, you’ll have problems. But they do a real good job of protecting him, being able to run the ball, getting down the field with receivers and tight ends. They have a bunch of playmakers, and it shows every week.’’
Let others hype the Patriots-Texans game. Gary Kubiak won’t be joining in, at least not publicly.
“Every game is big here coming down the stretch,’’ the Texans coach said. “We’re in position, just like the Patriots are, to kind of control our own destiny moving forward. We’re going to play in a lot of big games, and coming into New England, obviously that’s a big, big game.
“We see every week as a big game, and obviously in December, they’re all huge.’’