TAMPA, Fla. — 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 Buccaneers, 16-13, despite a potentially game-turning gentlemanly mistake by Lynch, a 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 in his eyes when he walked through the tunnel leading from the field.
Jake Plummer threw a five-yard touchdown pass to Patrick Hape and Jason Elam kicked three field goals to keep Denver (3-1) atop the AFC West. The only touchdown for Tampa Bay (0-4) 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 he 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."