It was one thing to stop a 218-pound quarterback. But a 264-pound wrecking ball?
The two fourth-and-short stops in the fourth quarter that highlighted the Divisional Round win over the Giants may have allowed fans to see what the Eagles believed for some time - that Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley are truly a special duo.
From Andy Reid's first year in 1999 through the 2006 season, the Eagles ranked 24th in the NFL against the run surrendering an average of 120.1 yards per game at a clip of 4.1 yards per carry. The defining moment of the run defense during this stretch was Deuce McAllister dragging along multiple players as the Saints tallied 208 yards on the ground during the 27-24 win in the Divisional Round of the 2006 playoffs.
But instead of looking elsewhere, the pieces to anchor the run defense were already in stock.
In 2007, Bunkley and Patterson were paired together to start for the first time and the results speak for themselves. The Eagles rank sixth in the league over the past two seasons in run defense with just 94 yards per game allowed and only 3.7 yards per carry. With Bunkley and Patterson each just 25 years old, the interior of the defensive line will have the potential to build upon this year's success for quite some time.
"I think we did a lot of good things together," Patterson said. "I'm looking forward to the future with him. It's going to be a good time. We learned a lot from each other this season. I think we will continue to learn a lot from each other in the future."
Bunkley was the Eagles' first-round pick in 2006, the 14th overall selection out of Florida State. The 6-foot-2, 306-pound rock in the middle went through a tough rookie season where he didn't see the field that often. A physical beast that needed his technique refined, Bunkley only had 13 tackles in 15 games in 2006.
Patterson came in off the heels of the Eagles' Super Bowl appearance. As the 31st selection of the 2005 draft, Patterson wasn't expected to crack the defensive tackle rotation early on, but injuries opened a door that Patterson busted through. Since 2005, Patterson leads all Eagles defensive linemen with 348 tackles. In 2007, Patterson and defensive end Trent Cole were the first pair of Eagles defensive linemen to account for 100-or-more tackles in the same season since 1991. Patterson was honored for the second consecutive year by USA Today as a member of the All-Joe Team, which praises the under-the-radar players who are key to a team's success.
But while most on the outside are unaware of these defensive tackles, their teammates know they can't be free to make plays if they don't do the dirty work upfront.
"The penetration that they get, being able to defeat one-on-one blocks on a consistent basis ... it affords the linebackers to flow a lot faster and then we come down and assist them, as far as safeties," said free safety Brian Dawkins. "The linebackers are doing an excellent job, but it starts with those two guys in the middle. I know we do a rotation in there, but those two individuals are key for this defense; they really are. They're very much unsung."
Including Bunkley and Patterson, six members of the Eagles' starting front seven on defense is 26 or younger. Now, with the taste of what it's like to play in an NFC Championship Game, that youth combined with experience could be a very lethal combination.
"There's a lot of young pieces, but the more you play together the more experience you have," Patterson said. "That's what we look forward to. Even when we had a young defense now, look at how far we made it. It can be a dangerous thing. We're just going to keep on looking forward and see what happens."