When Bill Belichick praises LeGarrette Blount -- something that is becoming as familiar from the coach during Patriots postgame media festivities as the phrase "all three phases" -- he is always quick to cite a victory over the Falcons in Week 4 as an important performance by the bruising running back.
While that contribution may not jump immediately to fans' minds, it's no misdirection play by Belichick. Blount was important that day, when the Patriots beat a Falcons team presumed to be a contender, 30-23. He ran for a team-high 64 yards on 9 carries, and his 47-yard scoring run gave the Patriots a 20-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Still, when Belichick mentions that game -- a September win obscured by so many memorable Sundays that followed -- it makes one wonder if there's a larger point the coach is making regarding Blount.
It was around that time when some of us began favorably comparing the 6-foot-2-inch, 235-pound Blount to Antowain Smith, a bruising if hardly flashy back of Patriots championships past. But you hear Belichick mention the Atlanta game, and your mind hits the replay button on that 47-yard run, and the question does pop to mind:
Was that the game when Belichick realized Blount was so much more than what we knew?
It's a question to tuck away and present the coach on a day when he's dealing in candor.
But last night? Belichick was instead dealing in ever-so-slight exaggeration.
Consider Belichick's first words about Blount after the running back's record-setting performance in the Patriots' 43-22 win over the Colts Saturday night -- an outcome that sends the Patriots to their third straight AFC Championship and eighth of the Tom Brady/Belichick era.
"He's run that way all year," Belichick said. "He ran that way in the Atlanta game."
Those words, well, they weren't entirely true. Maybe Blount has run that way all year, stylistically -- with power between the tackles and a burst in the open field that still surprises you even though you should be getting used to it by now.
But the results? Only one running back in Patriots history has racked up such numbers, has run to such staggering results. And it was not Antowain Smith, not that there's any shame in that comparison. Smith, after all, churned his legs, lowered his shoulder, and earned his two championship rings with the Patriots.
Blount is running with an entirely different class of ball-carrier now. He's stride-for-stride with the greatest back in Patriots history, and no, that's not a reference to Vagas Ferguson.
Blount ran for 166 yards and four touchdowns -- including three in the first half. The yardage total tied Hall of Famer and way-too-brief Patriot Curtis Martin's franchise playoff record set against the Steelers on January 5, 1997.
Now that's heady company. And Blount briefly held the record solo before a three-yard loss on his final carry knocked him back into a tie with Martin.
It was the only time he was knocked back in any sense all day. The four touchdowns broke Martin's Patriot playoff record of three -- set that same day 17 years ago against the Steelers. Only Ricky Watters of the 1993 San Francisco 49ers scored more in a playoff game -- five.
Blount's performance in his first career playoff game follows up his tour de force from the Patriots' regular-season finale, a 34-20 win over the Bills in which he ran for 189 yards and set a franchise mark for multi-purpose yards in a game.
The way he's going, Watters's touchdown standard may be on its final week. And one thing we can declare for sure: The Patriots' preseason trade of Olympic sprinter Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick to Tampa Bay for Blount is the kind of story that Hollywood spins into a heist movie. Blount had as many touchdowns Saturday as Demps has offensive touches in his NFL career.
"He's got that combination of size, power and quickness and speed,'' said Belichick when asked to describe what makes Blount so effective. "He's not a fullback. He's not a fullback, he's more than that. He's not a scat back either. He's got power. He can run hard, he can make guys miss and he can go the distance. He's made some big runs for us - going back to the Atlanta game and we've seen the last couple weeks; kickoff returns. He's an explosive player."
Rob Ninkovich put it more succinctly: "I'm happy he's on our team because I definitely wouldn't want to be hitting that guy. He's like my size."
Blount scored his first three touchdowns -- all from 2 yards out -- before 20 minutes had been played in the game, staking the Patriots to a 21-10 lead.
It's no longer suggested in the final score, but the Colts threatened to make a game of it in the second half, cutting the Patriots lead to 29-22 with 5:01 left in the third quarter on an Andrew Luck-to-LaVon Brazill 35-yard touchdown pass.
That's when Blount decided to ratchet up his degree of difficulty. Proving he was dangerous to the Colts from more than 2 yards out, he took a Tom Brady hand-off, blasted through the line of scrimmage and won a barely contested footrace to the end zone for a 73-yard touchdown run.
Twelve minutes and 55 seconds remained on the clock when he crossed the goal line, but the game was essentially over.
"It means a lot,'' said Blount when asked about tying one Martin record and toppling another. "I'm excited that they gave me the chance to carry the ball enough times to do that, but I've got to say hats off to the offensive line because on a couple of those runs, I didn't get touched."
Blount's commandeering of the Patriots' record book was just one of several compelling twists and developments Saturday.
- The Patriots picked off Luck four times, twice courtesy of Alfonzo Dennard, while flourishing linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins both got him once.
- Stevan Ridley also ran for a pair of touchdowns, a newsworthy feat in its own right.
- Stephen Gostkowski was forced into punting duty after Ryan Allen injured his shoulder while trying to make something out of a botched snap, and the unsung kicker promptly averaged 41.8 yards on five punts, placing two inside the 20.
And perhaps most noteworthy of all, the Patriots racked up 43 points without Tom Brady throwing a single touchdown pass.
"If you would have told me before the game, I would not have believed it at all,'' Blount said.
Of course, others might have said the same thing about the Buccanneers discard's four-touchdown masterpiece.
Blount was superb against the Bills, and yes, coach, there's that Atlanta game way back when. And now he's bumping Curtis Martin from the record books.
I'd say we'd better believe in him now. As the Colts proved time and again, it's no fun getting left behind as Blount runs away.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.