Everyone that watched the game probably remembers the play. With seconds remaining, the clock expiring towards another improbable Bengals victory, defensive end Carlos Dunlap exploded off the edge, quickly gaining leverage over the right tackle before sacking quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Though hope initially sought a leg cramp, Dunlap remained on the ground clutching his hamstring. It wasn't quite the same feeling remembering Carson Palmer wiggling in pain during the 2005 Wild Card game, but injuries that hurt your best players tends to drain the energy out of you even during games that the team wins.
Dunlap would go on to miss week 10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, making a valiant effort to return the following week against the Baltimore Ravens. And 13 defensive snaps later, Dunlap was off the field again, missing the next three games in what should probably be noted as an inadvisable move to bring him back far sooner than he was ready.
During his first eight games of the season, Dunlap generated 24 quarterback pressures, or three pressures per game.
Dunlap made his full return against the St. Louis Rams in week 15, taking part in 40 defensive snaps. Though he only generated one quarterback pressure, the game largely helped the team's best pass rusher shake the rust after missing a quarter of the season.
And it showed against the Arizona Cardinals. Taking part in 52 defensive snaps should be proof enough that he's recovered. But returning isn't so much about participating, as it is producing.
Dunlap and Geno Atkins generated a team-high four quarterback pressures respectively. Dunlap and Jonathan Fanene generated a team-high two quarterback hits respectively. And Dunlap was one of four players to generate a quarterback sack last Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.
Dunlap's return comes at a critical juncture in the season. Actually it doesn't get much more critical than this. Final game of the year, win and you're in. Lose, go home, and tell ourselves that there's always next year.