Mark Ingram's biggest moment to date?

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
6:30
PM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- Mark Ingram's first NFL playoff game could be one of the most fascinating to date in his roller-coaster three-year career with the New Orleans Saints.

Ingram has quietly been playing some of his best football over the past three weeks. And now he could possibly be asked to play a prominent role against the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday night if fellow tailback Pierre Thomas is held out or limited by a back injury.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
AP Photo/Paul JasienskiSaints running back Mark Ingram could get extra work in the playoff game against Philadelphia if Pierre Thomas can't play.
"That would be awesome, to play the best game of my career -- the best game of my life -- in that first playoff game," Ingram said with a smile. "And hopefully just continue to get better. So I'm excited about it and looking forward to it."

Say this for Ingram, he has always kept an incredibly positive and optimistic attitude throughout a career that has been plagued by injuries and inconsistent production.

This season was supposed to the best yet for the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner. But it started out as his worst. He had sluggish performances in the first two games (a combined 31 yards on 17 carries). Then he missed five games with a toe injury.

Ingram has always been a bit polarizing among the fan base because he hasn't lived up to the lofty expectations. And things got so bad by the middle of this season that he was actually booed by the home crowd in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome when he dropped a short pass during a Week 10 game against Dallas. (He responded by finishing that game with a career-high 145 yards on 14 carries in a 49-17 rout.)

Ingram also missed seven games because of injury as a rookie, including the playoffs. And he had to refute a report this year that might demand a trade.

Through it all, he has continued to insist that he has stayed positive, worked hard and cared only about the way his teammates and the members of the organization felt about him. He has never complained publicly about his limited role in the Saints' offense.

"You just have to stay patient," Ingram said. "I prepare myself every week like I'm gonna take all the reps. So if [Thomas] can go -- of course we want him to go. But if he can't, we'll step up. We have guys who are excited and ready to play."

I never expected a "breakout" season from Ingram, exactly. But I did think this was shaping up to be his best season in the NFL, based on the way he looked healthy all summer and the way it looked like the Saints planned to use him in a more versatile role.

During the past two seasons, Ingram was primarily pigeonholed in a short-yardage and base-package role, where he was always running behind fullbacks and tight ends against heavy defenses. Lately, though, he has shown what he's able to do when he actually gets out in space consistently.

Ingram has never shown a better combination of quickness, speed and an ability to break tackles than he has over the past three weeks (17 carries for 108 yards, including a 34-yarder, and four catches for 49 yards). And he actually finished this season with an average of 4.9 yards per carry (386 yards on 78 carries) -- a full yard higher than his career average before this season.

"I've been fortunate enough to be able to get in some space and be able to show what I can do in some space," Ingram said. "So I am healthy, I'm feeling good. But at the same time I felt healthy before. So [the key has been] just working hard and just trying to get a chance to take advantage of my opportunities and help the team win."

Again, I'm not necessarily going to predict a breakout performance from Ingram on Saturday night or during the Saints' playoff run.

But I still don't think his career story has been written. And a big performance against the Eagles could certainly start to change the narrative.

Mike Triplett

ESPN New Orleans Saints reporter

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