The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are running out of explanations for their inability to win close games.
The Bucs (2-4) fell short again Sunday, falling 35-28 to the New Orleans Saints after nearly scoring the tying touchdown on the final two plays of the game.
Josh Freeman had a career day passing, however his effort to get his team into overtime ended in disappointment when his third-down throw was grabbed by a leaping receiver who landed out of bounds and a fourth-down attempt was caught in the end zone only to be nullified by a penalty for illegal touching.
After four losses by a total of 22 points, coach Greg Schiano and his players are growing weary of questions about what it'll take to get over the hump.
Mistakes on offense, defense and special teams all contributed to the latest setback. New Orleans rallied from an early 14-point deficit, with Drew Brees throwing for four touchdowns and a porous Saints defense limiting the Bucs to seven points after yielding touchdowns on Tampa Bay's first three possessions of the game.
"If you look back on all of the games we lost, they were all pretty close. This is just another one that is sickening. We beat ourselves in situations, and it's just frustrating," defensive tackle Roy Miller said.
"We've got to do our jobs better. A lot of those plays weren't (Saints quarterback Drew) Brees, they were us," cornerback Ronde Barber added. "They're correctable, but in the immediacy of them it's very disappointing on our part."
Freeman threw for a career-best 420 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. The Bucs amassed 513 yards total offense, the second-highest in franchise history, and Vincent Jackson had seven receptions for a team-record 216 yards.
Yet after the game, Schiano found himself trying to explain why the offense failed to score after Jackson's 95-yard catch-and-run — the longest play in club history — gave Tampa Bay a first down at the New Orleans 1 with the Bucs trailing by a touchdown in the third quarter.
The defense yielded TD drives of 80, 80, 79 and 72 yards on four consecutive possessions in the opening half to allow the Saints to turn a 14-point deficit into a 28-21 lead.
Then after New Orleans' goal-line stand preserved the edge, Brees marched the Saints 95 yards for what turned out to be the decisive touchdown.
"We made too many critical errors that we haven't made," Schiano said. "You may whup us one-on-one, and that's fine. That's part of the game. But we made errors where we turned some guys loose. You can't do that at this level, especially with a quarterback like Drew. He's not going to miss the open man."
Special teams miscues included a missed field goal at the end of a drive lasting nearly seven minutes, as well as a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct that helped the Saints get into the end zone rather than settle for a field goal on their final scoring drive.
Only one of Tampa Bay's six games has been decided by more than seven points, a 38-10 victory over struggling Kansas City two weeks ago.
Schiano doesn't take solace in having a resilient team that's still learning how to win close games.
"Again, we're sitting here, what are we, 2-4 now? And we're saying this old song and dance. That's the way it is," the first-year coach said. "Until we get it changed, until we find a way to change it, close but no cigar."
Tampa Bay's resiliency will be tested again this week, when a short turnaround sends the Bucs to Minnesota to face the Vikings on Thursday night.
Not only do they not have much time to correct mistakes from the latest loss, there won't be much time to prepare for the next opponent.
"We are maturing and understand that we can't hang our heads too long," tight end Dallas Clark said.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy echoed that sentiment.
"That's the NFL. You just have to take it with a grain of salt and move on to the next one," he said, adding New Orleans "played well enough to get the 'W.' It's over, we're moving on to the Vikings."
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