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The great escape

All the benefits the Bucs earned from their Monday night win were going down the tubes against the Bengals, but John Lynch saves the day with his fumble-causing hit and recovery.

By RICK STROUD
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 3, 2001


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CINCINNATI -- John Lynch punched the ball out and it was on the turf Sunday for what seemed like several seconds.

Like three other times this season when a game was up for grabs, the Bucs safety took matters into his own hands and seized victory for Tampa Bay.

"I said, 'Just stay down, let Martin (Gramatica) in this thing and let's get out of here with our lives,' " Lynch said.

Lynch was Johnny on the spot again for the Bucs, causing and recovering a fumble by running back Corey Dillon at the Cincinnati 3 to set up Gramatica's 21-yard field goal with 9:58 remaining in overtime in Tampa Bay's 16-13 win at Paul Brown Stadium.

It never should have come down to Lynch's play, but the Bucs blew a 10-point lead with 6:23 remaining in regulation.

Dillon tied the score with a controversial 6-yard touchdown reception from Jon Kitna with eight seconds left.

But his 14th career fumble enabled the Bucs (6-5) to post back-to-back victories for the first time in nearly a year.

The win puts the Bucs in a three-way tie with New Orleans and Atlanta for the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC, with Tampa Bay currently holding the tiebreaker advantage. "You can count on John Lynch," Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "He closes out a lot of games for us. He might get the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year award."

Lynch has been the closer for the Bucs four times this season. On Monday night at St. Louis, he preserved the Bucs' 24-17 win by intercepting Kurt Warner on the final drive. He batted away a fourth-down pass in the end zone from quarterback Brett Favre on the final play in the Bucs' 14-10 win over the Packers. And his interception of a pass from Dallas rookie Quincy Carter sealed the Bucs' 10-6 opening win over the Cowboys.

But Sunday, Lynch and the defense should not have been subjected to another stress test.

All week, coach Tony Dungy told his team that winning in Cincinnati would be tougher than beating the Rams on Monday Night Football. What he didn't tell them was a stat he dug up: Only 12 percent of NFL teams win a game on the road after playing a Monday night game on the road.

"We made it tougher than it should be," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "A win is a win. That's one thing we did today that we didn't do in previous games and that's finish a team off in overtime.

"You take it. We got on a streak last year. We didn't care how we won."

The Bucs won ugly. The Bucs won despite Gramatica missing field goals of 43 and 51 yards. The Bucs won despite their offense failing to score a touchdown. In fact, the only person to get in the end zone for Tampa Bay was tight end Todd Yoder, who scooped up a punt blocked by Ronde Barber and returned it 11 yards for his first career score.

"We knew they were going to let the blitzer try to beat the punter off the corner," Barber said. "They said if you can get there, it's going to be a block. Simple as that.

"It was a free ride. If I didn't block that, I shouldn't be playing football. It's the punter's job to beat that guy off the corner. It was easy pickings."

Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson completed his first 14 passes, but as usual, his team could not finish drives.

A mind-boggling 17-play drive ended with Gramatica's first miss. Then leading 10-3 in the third quarter, Mike Alstott lost a fumble after an 8-yard reception to the Bengals 20-yard line. The ball was recovered by safety Chris Carter.

Tampa Bay's running game was nonexistent against the Bengals' array of blitzes. The Bucs gained 65 yards on 30 carries, a 2.2 average. And Johnson was sacked six times, including once in overtime that knocked the Bucs out of field-goal range.

That performance prompted receiver Keyshawn Johnson to blast the Bucs for not being more aggressive.

"I guess you could say it's playing down to the level of our competition," said Johnson, who finished with seven catches for 85 yards. "If we were playing St. Louis, we wouldn't have done that. Or if we were playing Minnesota, we could've thrown the football. I think we knew they couldn't throw on us and when we saw they couldn't run it either, at that point I think we said to ourselves we're going to grind it out and see where it goes. So much for grinding."

Offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said the plan was to try to beat the Bengals blitz by passing. "I don't know that it was called different," Christensen said. "I think the numbers at halftime were probably more aggressive. We ended up with nine runs at half. I really felt like that I struggled getting us into a rhythm, which is my job. I need to do that where they can make plays."

Gramatica's 51-yard miss gave the Bengals decent field position. They only needed to drive 36 yards for Neil Rackers' 41-yard field goal, cutting the Bucs' lead to 13-6.

The Bucs failed to pick up a first down on their next series, giving the Bengals a chance to send the game into overtime.

Dillon's tying touchdown was reviewed, but replays did not show conclusively that he failed to cross the goal line. Suddenly, the Bucs were fighting for their playoff lives, again.

"Knowing the stats -- two games on the road, a Monday night road game followed by a road game -- in the history of the league, it's always tough," Dungy said. "Cincinnati is a much better team than people give them credit for. ... We spent a lot of emotion in St. Louis and knew it was going to be tough."

The Bucs won the toss in overtime and drove to the Bengals 30 when Brad Johnson was sacked on third and 3 by linebacker Brian Simmons. Punter Mark Royals killed the ball at the Cincinnati 4. That's when Lynch saved the day and maybe the season.

"Today I was just fighting for my life, trying to get that sucker down," Lynch said of Dillon, who was held to 79 yards on 23 carries. "He made a hard cut on me. (Former assistant head coach) Herm Edwards used to always talk about shooting your arms, so I shot my arms and fortunately hit the ball. It's funny, I was thinking right before the game that it's this far in the season and I hadn't forced a fumble yet. And here it comes."

At the Pro Bowl in February, Lynch successfully bartered with Dillon to give him the Bengals helmet he was wearing when he broke the NFL single-game rushing record last season.

On Sunday, Lynch took something something more valuable than that from Dillon -- the football and the game.

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