When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got the ball back on Jamel Dean's clutch interception on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, they were 92 yards away from the opposite end zone and potentially looking at their last good shot to avoid a 27-23 loss. There was 3:40 left on the fourth-quarter clock at that point, but it was clearly time to hurry up.
Jameis Winston started the drive with a seam pass to Chris Godwin that turned into a 49-yard game when the receiver bounced off a would-be tackler and ran for nearly 30 more yards to the Arizona 43. Four plays later, the Bucs were past the two-minute warning and approaching the Cardinals' red zone. Three plays later, Peyton Barber scored on a third-and-goal run to give the Buccaneers their final winning margin.
That drive gave the Buccaneers their first win since September but it continued a trend that had been developing even in games they couldn't quite pull out: When the clock is winding down at the end of either half, Winston and Tampa Bay's offense kick into high gear.
In just the last two games, the Buccaneers have scored a touchdown in the final two minutes of three of the four halves, and in the other one (the first half at Seattle in Week Nine) they got into position to score but missed a field goal. Tampa Bay's 75-yard touchdown drive near the end of the fourth quarter in Seattle tied the game and sent it into overtime, but Winston never got a shot in the extra period after the Seahawks won the toss.
"We've been outstanding at half all year," said Arians. "Last week, with 40 seconds – this week, with a minute. That touchdown was huge after we gave up one and take that lead back before the half. To me, that's how you judge NFL quarterbacks – can they play in that situation? Forget the rest. Can they play in that? Right now, Jameis – I don't know of anybody playing better in two-minute in the last three or four weeks."
The numbers support Arians' observations, for both the team in general and Winston in particular. Through nine games, the Buccaneers have scored 65 points in the final two minutes of either half, the most by any team in the NFL. That's nearly twice the NFL average of 31 points per team, and it's 12 more than the second-place squad, the Dallas Cowboys. Tampa Bay's nine two-minute touchdowns are also best in the NFL, with no other team having more than six.
That total does include one defensive score, Ndamukong Suh's game-clinching fumble return at Los Angeles in Week Four, but it is still an impressive achievement. In 18 possible two-minute situations, the Buccaneers have scored eight offensive touchdowns and a field goal and missed two field goals (also at the end of the Giants game).
Obviously, the Buccaneers would not be scoring so many late-half points if their quarterback wasn't doing well in those situations. That's definitely the case for Winston, whose 103.8 passer rating inside two minutes of the half is significantly better than his overall rating of 83.8. He ranks in the top 10 in most categories in two-minute passing, and in the top five in many. For instance:
· 567 yards…1st
· 5 touchdowns…tied for 1st
· 8.7 yards per attempt…2nd
· 41 completions…2nd
· 65 attempts…4th
· 103.8 passer rating…5th
· 7.7% TD rate…6th
· 63.1% completion rate…10th
"I think [it's] his confidence – knowing what you're doing, first of all, trusting the guys around you [and] putting in the time to know what you're going to see," said Arians. "Is this team a blitz team, is it a Cover Two, what do they do in two-minute? Are they a Tampa 2 team? So, have some preconceived notions of where this ball might go in two-minute."
Of course, the Buccaneers are fourth in the league overall in scoring, with 28.9 points, so the offense has found success in the other 56 minutes of the game, too. But in a Bucs season in which the difference between wins and losses seems to be coming down on a weekly basis to big plays in the closing minutes, it's good to now that the team has an offense, and a quarterback, that can get the job done in crunch time.
"Two-minute is huge when you can take your team at the end of the half and go get a touchdown in a minute [or the] end of a game," said Arians. "We didn't do it [against San Francisco], but now we've done it for a few weeks.
"Jameis [Winston], two weeks in a row now has taken us the length of the field to win or tie a ball game and that's the growth you're looking for."