TAMPA — The phrase “two-minute warning'' has been known to send a chill down the spine of Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans, for good reason.
Under second-year coach Greg Schiano, the Bucs have already suffered four losses that were particularly gut-wrenching. Two of the setbacks came on the final snap of the game, and two others were decided on the next-to-last play.
Those four defeats came by a combined margin of seven points. Add in a 24-23 loss to Atlanta last season, and Schiano is saddled with an 0-5 record in games decided by three points or fewer.
“If we keep putting ourselves in situations to win at the end of the game, we're going to win our share,'' said veteran linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who signed as a free agent from New Orleans in the offseason. “We felt we should have won these last two games, but at the end of the day, we didn't. That's a fact. It's hard starting off 0-2, and we have to learn how to close games out.''
That's been a dispiriting issue with the Bucs during Schiano's 18-game tenure.
Instead of finding themselves routinely blown out, like in the final 10 games of the 2011 season, the Bucs have been involved in a series of close matchups the past two years.
“We need to play better two-minute,'' Schiano said, “whether it's smarter or better playing or better coaching. Whatever it is, we need to be a little bit better in that. I think our guys feel very comfortable in every phase, and maybe we haven't gotten there in two minutes ... not by lack of effort.''
Almost a quarter of NFL games are decided by three points or fewer, and the Bucs haven't fared well in those encounters:
Last September, the Bucs dropped a 24-22 decision to the Redskins at home. After going ahead on Connor Barth's 47-yard field goal with 1:42 left, Tampa Bay allowed Washington to march 56 yards in seven plays, capped by Billy Cundiff's 41-yard kick on the next-to-last snap.
In October, the Falcons went ahead 24-23 at Raymond James Stadium midway through the fourth quarter and held on as Matt Ryan completed a key 8-yard pass to Roddy White on third-and-5. By the time the Bucs regained possession, only eight seconds remained.
On Dec. 9, with the Bucs celebrating the 10-year reunion of their championship club, the Eagles rallied for a 23-21 victory. Tampa Bay was ahead 21-16 when Doug Martin was stopped for no gain on third-and-8. The Bucs punted, and Philadelphia drove 64 yards in 13 plays, capped by a 1-yard scoring pass from Nick Foles to Jeremy Maclin on the game's final play.
In the 2013 opener at MetLife Stadium, Martin was stopped on third-and-3 and the Bucs went ahead by two points on a field goal with 34 seconds remaining. Helped by a personal-foul penalty against Lavonte David, the Jets had enough time to kick the winning field goal on the next-to-last snap for an 18-17 triumph.
In the home opener against the Saints last Sunday, the Bucs led 14-13 late in the game before Martin gained 3 yards on third-and-6. Rian Lindell missed a 47-yard kick that could have padded the lead and Drew Brees then led the Saints on a 54-yard drive with no timeouts, capped by a field goal on the final play that closed out a 16-14 win.
“I would say immediately, it's sickening,'' said Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan. “I couldn't sugarcoat that in any other way. It's a very sick feeling, especially because the amount of time and preparation you put in, and you put yourself in a position to be there at the end of the game. But the nice thing about our sport is we have a game the next week.''
Now, the Bucs travel to Foxborough, Mass., to face the Patriots, who have won 31 of their past 34 home games.
And again, it could be decided by which team executes better in the final two minutes.
“In the end, it comes down to the players,'' said New England coach Bill Belichick. “The games that we've won around here, the players have made key plays in critical situations — whether it was two weeks ago against Buffalo with a drive and a kick or last week, a defensive stop and an interception by Aqib Talib. The players are the ones that are making the plays that win games for us.''
For Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, practice makes perfect in crunch time.
“Our coach puts a lot of pressure on us in practice to perform well,'' Brady said, “so when we get in those situations in the game, we don't feel like that's the first time we've faced a pressurized situation.''
It helps to have a killer instinct, a steely determination on offense to maintain possession with a lead or defensively, to protect an advantage in the final minutes.
“That's something that maybe we don't have exactly right now,'' Casillas said. “Maybe, it's on the cusp.''