TAMPA, Fla. — Their setting had changed, but the postgame scene involving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looked eerily similar to their Week 1 loss to the New York Jets, with elation on one sideline and a pit-in-the-stomach feeling of a brutal defeat on theirs.
New Orleans Saints kicker Garrett Hartley made a 27-yard field goal as time expired, setting off a collective roar from those in black-and-gold jerseys throughout Raymond James Stadium. Not far away, the Bucs’ defense, so strong for much of the evening against future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, was left to pick up their shattered hopes … again.
“We’re (a) whole bunch of prideful men out there competing our (tails) off,” Bucs linebacker Jonathan Casillas told FOX Sports Florida after his team’s 16-14 loss. “It hurts. This one will hurt.”
This is the contradiction that has defined the Bucs through the first two weeks in their second season under coach Greg Schiano: By far, their defense has been the team’s strongest unit; for the second consecutive Sunday, however, it failed to stop an opponent in the final seconds, flipping what could be a promising 2-0 record into a daunting 0-2.
Unlike last Sunday against Geno Smith, though, this ending felt inevitable. Bucs kicker Rian Lindell’s 47-yard field-goal try sailed wide left with 1:10 left, and Brees was given a short field to rally his team.
Not exactly a recipe for success.
What followed added to Brees’ reputation as one of the league’s most dangerous arms, a proven leader who operates with a heart surgeon’s precision when pressed: A pass across the middle to tight end Jimmy Graham for 15 yards, a pass left to running back Darren Sproles for 8 yards, a pass across the middle to wide receiver Marques Colston for 31 yards.
“I thought there were a lot of good things on defense,” Schiano said. “Unfortunately, it’ll be overshadowed by the loss.”
Yes, the Bucs’ defense did plenty of good. Brees earned his numbers (26-of-46 passing for 322 yards with one touchdown), but he was intercepted twice, including one in the fourth quarter that linebacker Mason Foster returned 85 yards for a touchdown after a terrific display of athleticism along the sideline.
Most of the afternoon, the Bucs’ defense operated with a bend-but-don’t-break principle. They did some silly things — three personal fouls for headshots showed a lack of discipline — but Tampa Bay never would have been in position to win without the physical play.
Now, the Bucs must do more: Learn to choke life from an offense when necessary.
“We played well, but I think we can play a lot better,” Foster said. “We always push each other. We know what we can do.”
They have yet to show they can hold a lead late. Few had this penciled as a Bucs victory, especially after their face-plant at MetLife Stadium. But this was a chance for everyone in pewter and red to make life easier on themselves.
This day was part of a bizarre stretch that included questions about the relationship between Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman, Freeman’s future with the Bucs (he denied he will request a trade) and doubts about Schiano’s ability to win over his locker room.
A victory Monday would have doused some flames. Instead, there was another loss. There was more heartbreak. There will be more questions.
Can the Bucs keep their season from bursting at the seams? Time will show.
“It hurts, man,” Bucs safety Dashon Goldson said. “You have the ballgame in your hands, and you give a win away in a last-second chance. Of course, we’re playing against a good football team. Last week, we played against another good football team. We could be 2-0 right now. … We definitely can build on some things. We did some good things and played well. But we’ve got to continue and keep believing.”
Already, there is little reason to believe the Bucs will appear in the postseason. Since 1990, only 22 of 160 teams that started 0-2 reached the playoffs. None has done it in five of the past 10 years.
At this point, playoffs should be the least of Tampa Bay’s concerns. The Bucs must show sharper instinct late in games, and leaders such as Goldson, cornerback Darrelle Revis and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy must be part of a turnaround. They must form the solution.
No more mental gaffes. No more loose coverage. No more L’s that should be W’s.
“We’ve got a 24-hour rule,” Bucs linebacker Dekoda Watson said. “We’re going to sit here and go over film. We’re going to be upset about it, but when that 24 hours is over, we’re done. It’s onto the next.”
Next? Only Tom Brady and the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium.
There’s no time to sulk. But yes, this one will hurt.