TAMPA, Fla. -- Whether he's making a momentum-shifting, bone-jarring tackle or knocking down a potential game-winning pass in the end zone, John Lynch always seems to wind up in the right spot for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The All-Pro safety's third-quarter interception turned around last weekend's playoff game against the Washington Redskins, sparking a comeback from a 13-point deficit that sent the Bucs into Sunday's NFC championship game.
Lynch, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, spent six years building a reputation as one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the NFL. But his improved pass coverage saved two games this season and elevated him to the best at his position.
"He's up in the box, knocking guys back in the nickel seats and smacking them right in the mouth one play," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "The next play, he's 15 yards deep, intercepting a pass or knocking the ball down and making a big play. He's a complete football player."
The secondary, with help from probably the quickest front seven in the league, led the NFC in pass defense. Lynch was third on the team in tackles (128), forced one fumble and had two interceptions in 1999.
Tampa Bay (12-5) was well on the way to exiting the playoffs when, trailing the Redskins 13-0, Lynch energized the team with a leaping interception of Brad Johnson's pass along the sideline.
Two days later, Kiffin was still raving about the play, as well as the subsequent challenge the seven-year veteran issued to the team's sputtering offense.
"He's in position, makes a great break on the ball and reads the quarterback and goes up in the air and catches the football just like a receiver and keeps his feet in bounds," Kiffin said.
"But then the best part comes. He walks up the sideline, right in front of our bench and takes the ball and spikes it. He says, `Let go offense. Enough of this crap.' I love that stuff. He got that whole sideline ignited. I'll tell you, that offense didn't want to come back off the field (without scoring) knowing Lynch was sitting there."
The Bucs drove 73 yards in six plays to trim their deficit to six points, then took advantage of another turnover to score again for a 14-13 victory. Washington drove into position to attempt a potential game-winning, 52-yard field goal but botched the snap.
Kiffin said it didn't matter.
"I'll tell you what. We could have played for three days, the Washington Redskins weren't going to beat us," the defensive coordinator said.
"Even if they don't screw up the snap, I guarantee you it would have hit the goal post and bounced back and been no good. Or if they had made it, we would have come back down and scored. They weren't going to beat us, not with the mind-set our defense was in. ... It was a clinic on heart and guts and soul."
And, Lynch was right in the middle of it with eight tackles and three passes defended, in addition to the interception. It's the kind of performance he's come to expect of himself.
"I've been happy with my game in general," he said. "I feel like I put myself in position to make plays and I'm probably making them, when I'm in the position, better than I have ever before. That's something I've been pleased with."
The Bucs are two-touchdown underdogs to the St. Louis Rams in Sunday's NFC title game. However, Lynch is confident he and his teammates will find a way to slow the NFL's most prolific offense.
"I think our history shows we're a team that kind of thrives on situations like that. At 3-4, most people were counting us out -- except the people in this locker room," the safety said.
"Not a lot of people are going to be thinking we can go down there and come out with a win. But on the contrary, we kind of expect that out of ourselves. It's going to take a special effort, but we feel like we have it in us."
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