SANTA CLARA -- If the nation didn't notice earlier, 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman charged Monday night into the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year picture.

Bowman's signature play of his upstart campaign will be his 89-yard interception return for a touchdown that secured a 34-24 win over the Atlanta Falcons, locked up a playoff berth and ignited Candlestick Park's likely farewell celebration.

There is no runaway candidate for the league's top defensive honor, unlike on the offensive side where the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning seems a lock for his fifth NFL MVP award.

Bowman's case is worthy, noble and, truth be told, probably that of an underdog, even inside the NFC West.

Here who's getting mentioned -- by media members, coaches, teammates and even themselves -- as the potential AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year:

  • Bowman: Before his heroic interception return, he tallied 16 tackles (upon coaches' film review) to raise his season total to a team-high 183, already matching last season's tally. He's ProFootballFocus.com's top-rated inside linebacker. His career-high four sacks include two in a season-turning win at St. Louis on Sept. 26, and one that set the tone in a Dec. 8 win over Seattle. He also has eight passes defensed, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

  • Luke Kuechly (Carolina Pathers): Leading the league's stingiest defense (14.7 points per game) is Kuechley, who initially got credited with 24 tackles in Sunday's win over New Orleans. Coaches pushed that franchise-record total to 26 upon film review. Kuechley has 165 tackles this season, including 11 (and a sack) in a 10-9 win over the 49ers on Nov. 10.

  • Robert Quinn (St. Louis Rams): No one in the NFL has more sacks than his team-record 18. Five of them came in the Rams' past two wins over the Saints and Buccaneers. He only had one sack in two losses to the 49ers. "He might not win it, Defensive Player of the Year, but shoot, what else do you want him to do on a team that's 7-8 at this point and doesn't play with a bunch of leads?" teammate Chris Long told FoxSports.com

  • Earl Thomas (Seattle Seahawks): This roving safety has career highs with 103 tackles, five interceptions, two forced fumbles and Richard Sherman's endorsement for the DPOY award. Thomas intercepted a Colin Kaepernick pass at the Seahawks 1 to spark their Sept. 15 rout.

  • Richard Sherman (Seattle Seahawks): The gregarious Stanford product has a league-leading eight interceptions, including two in each of the past two games and one against Kaepernick on Sept. 15.

  • Robert Mathis (Indianapolis Colts): Of his 17 ½ sacks (at age 32), none was bigger than a fumble-forcing hit on Peyton Manning in an Oct. 20 upset of the Denver Broncos. Mathis had 1 ½ sacks in the AFC South-champion Colts' win over the 49ers on Sept. 22.

  • J.J. Watt (Houston Texans): Last season's near-unanimous selection for Defensive Player of the Year, his statistics have been sliced in half this year: 9 ½ sacks and six passes defensed. Last season: 20 ½ sacks, 16 passes defensed.

  • Karlos Dansby (Arizona Cardinals): With the 49ers coming to town, he's got 6 ½ sacks, four interceptions and 18 passes defensed. "Nobody's outplayed me. I got stats in every category," Dansby told the Arizona Republic. He had a team-high 11 tackles, a sack, three passes defensed and a forced fumble in a 32-20 loss to the 49ers on Oct. 13.

  • Others worth mentioning: Justin Smith (49ers), Vontaze Burfict (Cincinnati Bengals), Lavonte Davis (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Cameron Jordan (New Orleans Saints).

    For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CamInman.