FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – There was little doubt about Ellis Hobbs’ determination, not after he played just 11 days following surgery on his broken wrist in late September.

So when he bolted up the middle and ran 93 yards for a touchdown on a kickoff return Sunday, New England coach Bill Belichick was hardly surprised.

“Ellis is a tough kid. He plays hard, with or without the ball,” Belichick said Monday after the Patriots 40-7 win over the Houston Texans. “It takes some speed, but it takes some courage to accelerate on those returns where you’ve got everybody after you, but he’s very aggressive.”

He also stands just 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 190 pounds, small for a cornerback.

Andre Johnson, the wide receiver he covered, is 6 feet 2 inches and 222 pounds. But Hobbs tackled him for no gain on one reception and intercepted another pass intended for him less than seven minutes after the kickoff return.

“This game isn’t all about size,” Belichick said. “It’s about leverage. It’s also about strength, pound for pound strength, playing strength.”

Hobbs, in his second NFL season, showed his emotional strength last week after a 21-0 loss at Miami, the Patriots worst game of the season in which he didn’t start for the first time in five weeks and finished with only two tackles.

“A lot of players have been in that situation in this league,” said safety Artrell Hawkins, a nine-year veteran. “I told him last week when we were flying back from Miami, I was proud of him and to keep working like he does. He did just that.”

Hobbs said his big game against Houston was special.

“It means a lot (after) last week, getting back to my form of ball,” he said. “I don’t feel myself being an average player. … Just fighting through those tough times and having days like this really gives you inspiration.”

On Sept. 24 against Denver, Hobbs broke his left wrist. He underwent surgery three days later and missed a game Oct. 1 at Cincinnati. But he came off the bench the next Sunday and had six tackles in a 20-10 win over Miami.

New England led 27-0 at halftime Sunday, but Houston started the second half with a 10-play, 70-yard drive leading to Ron Dayne’s 1-yard touchdown run. Hobbs scored on the ensuing kickoff.

“Whatever chance they had to get back into the game at that point was really hurt by that long play,” Belichick said.

The Patriots (10-4) became the last team to score on special teams or defense this season and can clinch the AFC East title next Sunday with a win at Jacksonville (8-6).

As a third-round draft pick out of Iowa State last year, Hobbs started the last eight games at cornerback. But the Patriots were eliminated in a divisional playoff game at Denver 27-13. He did return three kickoffs for 89 yards in that game.

Rookie Laurence Maroney has handled that role most of this season and ranks second in the NFL in kickoff returns. But he’s missed the last two games with torn rib cartilage.

Kevin Faulk, who returned kickoffs against Miami, passed on that job to Hobbs, perhaps because Faulk was expected to see more than his usual action at running back with Maroney sidelined.

Now it’s Faulk who may be out. He limped in the locker room with an apparent right leg injury after Sunday’s game in which he scored two touchdowns.

Belichick gave no details on his condition, but if Faulk and Maroney out, the Patriots would be left with just Corey Dillon and Heath Evans at running back. They have no running backs on their practice squad.

“Were not even barely 24 hours after the game,” Belichick said, “so we’ll see how everybody’s doing and, as always, we’ll make the decisions that we feel are the best for our football team.”

On Sunday, Hobbs may have made some decisions for his coach – in the secondary and on the kickoff return squad.

“Ellis is good for this football team,” Belichick said. “He does a lot of things to help us win.”

AP-ES-12-18-06 1837EST

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