Ever since Oakland lost the Super Bowl to Jon Gruden and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the 2002 season, the Raiders have been one of the NFL’s worst teams.
That didn’t change in 2008, but they can close the year by making sure Gruden’s club will be home for January, too.
Three straight losses at the most inopportune time have left the Buccaneers’ playoff chances in peril, and they’ll need help to earn a second consecutive berth even if they beat Oakland in the regular-season finale at home on Sunday.
Tampa Bay (9-6) was 9-3 three weeks ago, and despite having a pair of tough divisional road games on its schedule, the team still seemed in good position to get back to the playoffs.
While defeats at Carolina and Atlanta earlier this month were somewhat more palatable, last Sunday’s 41-24 home loss to San Diego left a bad taste in the Bucs’ mouths as they turned the ball over three times and allowed 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.
It was the first home loss this season for Tampa Bay, which fell into third place in the NFC South after winning the division last year. The team is tied with Dallas and Chicago for the NFC’s final wild-card spot, but the Cowboys hold the tiebreaker, meaning the Bucs need to win and have Dallas lose at Philadelphia later on Sunday to make the playoffs.
“When you’re 9-3 at one point and you’re a couple of wins away from the playoffs, and now we’re fighting just to get in … it’s tough looking at it,” running back Warrick Dunn said.
The Bucs have been tied or leading in the fourth quarter in each of their last three games, but each time they’ve been unable to mount late rallies. Jeff Garcia threw a pair of interceptions in the final 15 minutes against the Chargers, including one returned for a touchdown.
“It’s been very disappointing over the past three weeks to play the way we have and not finish games off,” said Garcia, who played last week despite missing the previous game with a calf injury.
Perhaps the bigger problem for Tampa Bay, however, has been its defense. The unit ranked fourth in the NFL through nine games, allowing an average of 293.2 yards, but it has softened in recent weeks, giving up a combined 474 rushing yards to the Panthers and Falcons before facing San Diego’s passing attack.
Philip Rivers threw for 287 yards and four touchdowns without an interception Sunday, as San Diego became the first opponent this season not to turn the ball over at least once at Tampa Bay.
“I can’t put my finger on anything other than we’re a better defensive football team than we’ve played,” Gruden said, “and I’m confident that we can prove that this Sunday. We have to do that.”
Gruden coached the Raiders from 1998-2001, but left for Tampa Bay before the 2002 season as the Bucs sent several draft picks and cash in exchange for the coach.
The teams met in the Super Bowl that year, with Tampa Bay picking off five passes and scoring three defensive touchdowns in a 48-21 win. Oakland has sunk into irrelevance ever since.
This year, the Raiders (4-11) became the first team in NFL history to lose at least 11 games in six straight seasons, but they’re guaranteed to avoid matching the most losses by any team in a six-year stretch. They’re two losses shy of the Bucs’ mark of 74, set from 1983-88.
Oakland also made headlines this season for the bizarre feud between owner Al Davis and coach Lane Kiffin that eventually led to Kiffin’s firing on Sept. 30. They’ve gone 3-8 under interim coach Tom Cable, but are coming off Sunday’s 27-16 win over Houston - a game in which the Raiders compiled a season-high 362 total yards.
JaMarcus Russell went 18-of-25 for 236 yards and two touchdowns, while Johnnie Lee Higgins continued his breakout second half, catching a touchdown pass and notching his third punt-return TD in the last six games.
“I know what we’re doing right now, but in the years to come how good can we be?” Russell said. “I think out there those guys are showing it.”
The Raiders haven’t won back-to-back games all season, and Cable said there will be extra motivation to do so on Sunday as he tries to shed the interim tag in Oakland.
“We need a breakthrough as a team,” Cable said. “If you can do it again then I think you can leave the facility going into the spring and the winter then having some confidence, having the right kind of positive feeling.”
Aside from the Super Bowl, the Raiders have won five of six all-time against the Bucs, but they’ve only visited Tampa once, losing 20-17 in overtime in 1996.