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John DeShazier: Wild-card performance best of Mark Ingram's Saints career

Stellar play began with the Dallas game

Short memory. Thick skin. Broad shoulders.

Look closely at New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram, study his season and career, and it'd be hard to not walk away with that assessment of him, impossible to pretend that he hasn't possessed all three traits – in abundance – this season, and often has leaned on them.

That never was more evident than last Saturday, when Ingram was as good in his playoff debut as he ever has been in a Saints uniform, his 18-carry, 97-yard, one-touchdown performance against the Eagles being critical to New Orleans' 26-24 wild-card victory in Philadelphia.

"Just the circumstances – being in the playoffs, win or go home, a cold game, being on the road – I think (considering) the circumstances, it was the best game of my career," Ingram said.

With regular-season leading rusher Pierre Thomas sidelined by a chest injury, it was Ingram to whom Coach Sean Payton turned to as the starter. And it was Ingram who totaled exactly half of the team's 36 carries, and 52 percent of its 185 rushing yards.

Eleven carries and 56 yards came in the second half, as the Saints (12-5) asserted their superiority on the line of scrimmage and Ingram continued his surge during the second half of the season.

Including Saturday, he has rushed for 483 yards and two touchdowns on 96 carries, averaging five yards per carry, this season. In the last eight regular-season games and the playoff game against Philadelphia, he has run for 433 yards and both touchdowns on 75 carries, 5.8 yards per carry. [internal-link-placeholder-0]

And the Saints, undoubtedly, hope the production continues Saturday, when they play the Seahawks (13-3) at CenturyLink Field in Seattle in a divisional playoff game. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:35 p.m. CST.

"They ran the ball well," said Seattle Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman, who led the league with eight interceptions. "They did a great job, Ingram did a good job running it physical and being effective.

"The offense moved the ball effectively. Any time you can run the ball and impose your will running the ball, it's going to be a good day for your offense and that's what they did."

The fact that the Saints did so with Ingram as the primary ball carrier spoke volumes about the trust he has earned and the elevation of his play.

After an offseason in which Ingram said he was healthier than ever and in the best shape of his three-year career, he managed just 31 yards on 17 carries in the first two games of the season before being inactive the next five with a toe injury.

Exterior criticism mounted as he watched from the sideline and rehabbed. But he returned to average 4.8 yards per carry on four carries against the Jets, then had his best regular-season game the next week against Dallas – 14 carries for a career-high 145 yards and a touchdown. His previous career high, 91 yards (on 14 carries), came against Indianapolis in 2011.

The Dallas game was the beginning of his current roll. Three times during the stretch, he has run for at least 83 yards and six times, he has averaged at least four yards per carry.

"He's been running real well," Payton said. "I liked his ball security the other night. Those weren't always easy yards. I'm pleased with how he's playing. I think he's had a handful of games now toward the latter part of the season where he's been exceptional."

Last Saturday was just the latest example for a player whose short memory, thick skin and broad shoulders have served him well this season.

"I've just been getting opportunities and trying to make the most of it," Ingram said. "Trying to continue to get better, trying to continue to improve every day and expand on it.

"I've always been confident in myself. I know what I can do. I'm confident in my ability. Having an opportunity to get those touches and show what I can do, it was great to do it."

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