FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- As the New England Patriots prepare to host the Houston Texans on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" (8:30 p.m. ET), there is a growing chance they will be bolstered by the return of two key injured players.
For Mankins, who has been out since injuring his ankle in the second half of the team's Nov. 11 win over the Buffalo Bills, it has marked his first return to the practice field. Likewise for Jones, the team's impressive 2012 first-round draft choice who injured his ankle in the first quarter of the club's Nov. 18 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
Sources say both players are on track to play Monday night, barring a setback over the next few days, as they've been integrated into the mix during practices.
The potential return of Mankins, a four-time Pro Bowler, couldn't be any timelier, as the Texans' defensive line -- led by J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith -- is one of the best the Patriots will face this season. It would also create flexibility to possibly move super-sub Donald Thomas to right guard if starter Dan Connolly (back injury, questionable) is unable to go.
The more reinforcements in place to combat Watt (16.5 sacks, 32 quarterback hits, 15 passes defended), the better for the Patriots, as Watt is the key chess piece up front.
"We move him around some, [but] we don't move him around all the time," Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said of Watt on Friday. "He's going to play mostly on our defensive left, and people know that. If they start doubling him, we've brought pressures from the other side that have been giving teams problems."
If that holds true to form, the 6-foot-5, 295-pound Watt will mostly be lined up against right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and either Connolly or Thomas at right guard (third-year player Nick McDonald and second-year man Marcus Cannon are also on the depth chart and figure to become bigger factors if Mankins doesn't play). In sub situations, Watt usually reduces inside and lines up against a guard or center, according to Phillips.
The other area in which the Patriots would benefit from the return of the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Mankins is in the running game, where the offense struggled until the fourth quarter last Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. Mankins plays with a mean streak, and going up against the NFL's No. 2-rated rush defense (87.6 yards per game) naturally presents some challenges.
Yet opponents haven't truly tested Houston on the ground, as they are averaging a league-low 21.4 carries per game against it. Meanwhile, the Patriots are averaging 33.4 carries per game, and one gets the sense they don't view Houston like they did the run-stuffing 2006 Minnesota Vikings, an opponent against whom they essentially conceded the run and instead spread the field in an aerial assault on "Monday Night Football."
So the return of the road-grading Mankins would be significant, just as the defense would receive a spark from the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Jones, who was viewed as a top candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors before missing most of the past three games.
Jones had six sacks in nine games at the time of the injury, forcing three fumbles while being credited with two passes defended. Lining up primarily at right end, he had been on the field for more than 90 percent of the defensive snaps before being sidelined.
"He's very long, we loved him coming out of the draft," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said of Jones, the 21st overall pick out of Syracuse. "He's been a real good player for them."
If Jones returns, it would set up a matchup of strength versus strength against the Texans' best lineman, left tackle Duane Brown, a 2008 first-round pick. It would also free up playmaker Rob Ninkovich to flip to left end, where there might be a matchup advantage over second-year tackle Derek Newton.
The signs are pointing in the right direction for both Jones and Mankins at this point.
In the biggest game of the season to date, the Patriots look primed to receive a big boost -- on both sides of the ball.