Mark Ingram's introduction to the NFL was this: The New Orleans Saints and their record-setting offense went 13-3 and won the NFC South Division.
But Ingram never got a chance to bask in a feeling of inevitability that might have accompanied being a division champion and playoff-game winner (the Saints won their wild-card game before losing in the divisional round) after his rookie season. That was snatched away before it had a chance to sink in.
"I feel like you can get that vibe, that, 'We've got all the same players, we're just going to come back the next year, we're gonna roll through,' " he said. "But it was tough on us.
"We won that year and then the next year we had the sanctions going on, we had a coach suspended, we had the draft picks taken – so it was tough, we were fighting an uphill battle. It's difficult to win in this league, every team has good players.
"So I don't think I got that sense that it would just be easy, just because of things we dealt with the year after. But you always have that belief that you're going to be able to win games and be able to play for the championship. That's what keeps us going, that's what keeps us fighting."
That fight has led to this week. The Saints (11-4) have an opportunity to win the NFC South for the first time since '11 with a victory Sunday against Tampa Bay (4-11) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. The Saints also can clinch the division title if they lose and Carolina (11-4) loses, or if both teams tie in their respective regular-season finales.
Ingram wasn't a significant contributor to the most recent division title. The rookie running back played in just 10 games, and ran for 474 yards and five touchdowns on 122 carries, and caught 11 passes for 46 yards. He injured his toe in the 12th game of the season, had season-ending surgery and was placed on injured reserve, missing the final four regular-season games and both playoff games.
But this year, Ingram has been a catalyst for the second-ranked overall offense (395.7 yards per game) and No. 5 rushing team (131.9) in the league. He has career highs in rushing yards (1,089) and rushing touchdowns (12) on 217 carries, which is nine shy of tying his career high in that category. He also has a career-high 54 receptions for 397 yards.
"My first one, I had my role, what I was doing," he said. "I felt invested in that too. But I feel like as an older player in the locker room, and just the things that I've gone through in my career, and three years of 7-9, I feel like we've invested a lot in this year.
"It hasn't been just this year; it's been years and years and years of investing things into this moment now. So we're happy, we're excited and we're going to try and go win a championship on Sunday against Tampa."
Ingram said, despite his experience, he hasn't felt a need to stress to the Saints' younger players how precious this opportunity is.
"We've told them," he said. "These guys are mature enough to know not to take this opportunity for granted. It's not like we have to keep hammering it away at them. They're smart enough to know that this is a special opportunity.
"Two-thirds of the league have their New Year's trips planned. They're going to fly to Vegas or wherever. I've been there (with the team eliminated from playoff contention). I've been there. You know what you're doing after the game – 'I'm going to Vegas, I'm going to be there when it's time for the ball to drop (on New Year's Eve).'
"A lot of teams are like that. So you just can't take the opportunity for granted. We have the opportunity to accomplish something special. I think these guys are well aware of it."