TAMPA ― The game is tight and throats may be tighter. But whether leading or trailing in the final minutes, the Bucs continue to close out games using their pedigree and poise.
For the fourth time this season, Tom Brady and the Bucs offense needed to win a game on their final possession or run all the time off the clock to protect a lead.
They did it in the NFL opener when trailing by one, driving down the field to set up Ryan Succop’s 36-yard field goal in a 31-29 win over the Cowboys.
They did it in Week 4, when Brady led a drive for Succop’s game-winner from 48 yards with just under two minutes remaining to hold on to win 19-17 at New England.
They did it Oct. 14, holding a 28-22 lead at Philadelphia, then using the final 5:54 on the clock with a clutch drive that ended with Brady taking a knee twice from the Eagles’ 9-yard line.
And they did it Sunday, tied 31-all with the Colts before using their closer ― running back Leonard Fournette ― to drive 75 yards for the winning touchdown with 20 seconds remaining in the game.
Fournette, who had 100 yards rushing, scored on a 28-yard run to cap the Bucs’ 38-31 win at Indianapolis.
“That’s been our M.O. forever,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said Monday. “Same way in Arizona. Same way when we had Andrew Luck in his rookie year (at Indianapolis) and won about six games in the last two minutes. ... We take a lot of pride in being a really, really, good finishing team whether it’s with the lead or having to go score to win a game. ...
“Situational football, especially two-minute, is critical and four-minute offense is the same. When you have quarterbacks like I’ve been fortunate enough to be around that can will themselves on the rest of their teammates, it makes it a lot of fun.”
The Bucs made the decision to return 22 starters from their Super Bowl 55 championship team, many of them aging veterans in their 30s.
Overcoming injuries with the league’s oldest roster has been the Bucs’ biggest challenge this season. On Sunday, they lost cornerback Jamel Dean, linebacker Devin White and guard Aaron Stinnie at various times in the game.
Tampa Bay allowed 21 points in the second quarter and trailed 24-14 until Shaquil Barrett sacked Colts quarterback Carson Wentz, stripped him of the football and recovered the fumble in the next quarter.
Fournette and Ronald Jones scored touchdowns during a span of seven minutes in the third quarter and Succop added a fourth-quarter field goal to give the Bucs a 31-24 lead.
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After the Colts tied it on Jonathan Taylor’s 4-yard run with 3:29 remaining in the game, it was winning time. Players such as Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Fournette, Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett all have experience winning big games on the road.
“This was a team (Colts) that was on fire at home in a really loud game and we were able to sustain it,” Arians said. “It wasn’t pretty in the first half and they never are on the road. You’ve just got to keep finding ways to win. When you come out with a plus-three in turnovers and only have four penalties, that’s a pretty good recipe. You’ve got a chance to win.”
The physical style of play of Fournette and Gronkowski did something else. It ignited the sideline and brought more fight to the huddle.
“When Lenny runs somebody over or Gronk gets the ball on the sidelines, you really don’t want to be the (defensive back),” Arians said. “That’s a big man. When he gets a chance to drop some pads on you — both of them really — it’s going to be a hell of a collision and they win most of them. It really does fire up our sidelines this year.”
Situational football is what the Bucs have excelled at late in games, whether it’s driving for the winning score or running out the clock to lock down a lead the way they did at Philadelphia.
No one is better at it than Brady. If there was a lament about Sunday’s win, it’s that Fournette scored his fourth touchdown with 20 seconds remaining rather than falling down before reaching the goal line and summoning Succop to prevent the Colts from getting the ball back.
Bradley Pinion’s kickoff was returned 72 yards by Isaiah Rodgers, but cornerback Pierre Desir closed it out with an interception, the Colts’ fifth turnover.
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