TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—John Lynch mingled and posed for pictures with old friends, then savored one more round of applause before heading for the visiting locker room teary-eyed and deeply satisfied.
The Denver safety’s emotional return to Tampa Bay was a success Sunday, with the Broncos beating the winless Buccaneers 16-13 despite a potentially game-turning gentlemanly mistake by the five-time Pro Bowl selection with a reputation for delivering bone-jarring hits.
“You caught me at a bad moment,” Lynch said when told he appeared to have tears streaming from his eyes when he walked through the tunnel leading from the field.
“I think finally everything hit me. I anticipated that might come at some point. Last night, to be honest, I didn’t sleep a wink. I don’t know if I was that nervous for the Super Bowl.”
Jake Plummer threw a 5-yard TD pass to Patrick Hape and Jason Elam kicked three field goals to keep Denver (3-1) atop the AFC West. Tampa Bay’s only touchdown came on a play on which Lynch failed to knock down a receiver who was getting up off the ground.
Instead, Lynch merely touched Michael Clayton on the back, thinking the rookie was down. Clayton, whose helmet was knocked off when his head was brushed by Lynch’s knee, stood up and took off for the end zone to complete a 51-yard pass play.
Lynch, who was fined for a hit on Kansas City’s Dante Hall after the Broncos’ season opener, said he didn’t want to risk a penalty for hitting a player on the ground.
“It’s a shame. Ultimately the responsibility lays on me. I’ve got to tackle him,” Lynch said.
“There’s a new league emphasis. If they’re laying down and you hit them, you’re going to get 15 yards. I tried to do the right thing for the first time in my career and keep (the NFL) out of my pocket, and I get burned.”
Plummer completed 13 of 31 passes for 138 yards for Denver, saving his best for the fourth quarter—when he took advantage of a 37-yard pass interference penalty to set up Elam’s 24-yard field goal that snapped a 13-13 tie with 9:03 to go.
The Denver quarterback also put together a long drive that burned all but three seconds of the final 7:26 off the clock. Tampa Bay inserted Chris Simms for the last play, and Lynch nearly intercepted his desperation pass near midfield.
The loss was the sixth straight over two seasons for the Bucs (0-4), who have dropped 10 of their last 13 games. The Bucs are 0-4 for the first time since 1996, and coach Jon Gruden fell to 1-8 in matchups with Denver’s Mike Shanahan.
“Clearly our objective, and my objective, was to come in here and win,” said Lynch, who spent 11 seasons in Tampa Bay. “But I feel for my guys. There are some mixed emotions. I told them to just keep fighting, and I know they will.”
Lynch was presented with a key to the city after the Bucs, a little more than a year removed from winning the Super Bowl, released him in mid-March in a cost-cutting move that was very unpopular with fans.
Many in the crowd of 65,341 wore No. 47 Broncos jerseys and greeted Lynch, who played 11 seasons in Tampa Bay, with a loud ovation when he ran onto the field for pregame warmups and again when the starting lineups were introduced.
It was another frustrating day for the Tampa Bay offense, which had some success moving the ball but had to settle for field goals by Martin Gramatica of 28 and 30 yards on two possessions deep in Denver territory.
Michael Pittman returned from a three-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy and rushed for 72 yards on 15 carries for the Bucs. Brad Johnson completed 15 of 23 passes for 162 yards, including the TD throw to Clayton.
Denver moved 43 yards in seven plays after recovering a fumble to take a 7-0 lead on Plummer’s scoring pass to Hape, a former Bucs tight end who was wide open heading into the right side of the end zone.
Elam’s 49-yard field goal made it 10-0 and his 50-yarder put the Broncos up 13-7 after Clayton scored his first NFL touchdown.
The Tampa Bay rookie was still crouched over with his right hand on the ground at about the 20, but his knees were clearly up when Lynch—running at full speed—touched him on the back instead of making the tackle.
“It was a perfect call, a perfect play, perfect coverage,” Clayton said. “I wish it could have sparked us a little more.”
Denver’s Quentin Griffin rushed for 66 yards on 21 carries after being held to 7 yards on 12 attempts by San Diego the previous week. … Tampa Bay’s Tim Brown had one catch for 3 yards, extending the NFL’s longest streak with a reception to 176 games.