Dunlap was in for a season-high 53 snaps Sunday, partly because of the way he was playing and partly because San Diego threw the ball 48 times compared to only nine called runs.
Despite the extra work in the warm Southern California weather, Dunlap was still strong late in the fourth quarter, coming up with perhaps the biggest play of the game with less than four minutes to go when he recorded the defensive trifecta with a sack, strip and fumble recovery at the San Diego 13-yard line.
It came just two plays after the Bengals had taken a 17-13 lead on Andy Dalton's 6-yard run, and it set up a Mike Nugent 24-yard field goal that stretched the lead to a more comfortable 20-13.
“That was great. It was surreal,” Dunlap said. “For us to go out there and me to be that guy to make the play is very humbling.”
Dunlap has been listed as the starter on the depth chart at left defensive end since the end of the preseason, but Robert Geathers has started all 12 games at that spot this season.
Asked a few weeks ago when Dunlap is actually going to start a game, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said, “I ask Carlos that same question every day. When are you going to start?”
The question came up again Wednesday after the Player of the Week awards were announced.
“Just continue to be the new Carlos, and don’t go back to the old Carlos,” Lewis said.
Defensive line coach Jay Hayes said he considers Dunlap a starter.
“He’s a starter in nickel, he’s a starter in other packages,” Hayes said. “Carlos is a starter, and (Geathers) is a starter. When the game starts we just happen to have four guys out there.”
Wallace Gilberry also had a sack Sunday, and Geno Atkins and Domata Peko shared one to increase the Bengals' NFL-leading total to 39. The depth and interchangeable nature of the defensive line is something Dunlap said he and the others thrive on.
“We treat it like the Hunger Games, whoever gets there first,” he said. “Especially when we know it’s a pass, me, Geno and Mike are licking our chops like we hadn’t eaten all day.
“When Geno or Mike gets that sack, we celebrate as if we all got that sack,” he added. “That’s one of the things that’s been key for us in being a young team, making it fun and keeping it fun is going to do wonders for us down the road.”
Dunlap is the fifth Bengals player to win an AFC award this season. Adam Jones was Special Teams Player of the Week in Week 2 against the Browns. The following week Johnson won Defensive Player of honors against Washington, and quarterback Andy Dalton earned Offensive Player of the Week accolades for his performance against the New York Giants on Nov. 11.
Wide receiver A.J. Green was the AFC Offensive Player of the Month in September.