TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—Warrick Dunn stared straight ahead, searching for words to explain how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers let a promising season slip away with a December swoon that left them out of the playoffs.
“There’s disbelief. There’s shock. There’s emotions, I’m sure, that I can’t really describe,” the veteran running back said Sunday after the team’s fourth consecutive loss, 31-24 to the Oakland Raiders, completed the biggest collapse in franchise history.
“To be 9-3, and you lose four in a row when all you have to do is win one and you’re in, it’s tough to swallow. The guys in this locker room have prepared hard, played hard. Things haven’t gone our way.”
Michael Bush rushed for a career-high 177 yards and scored on a 67-yard fourth-quarter jaunt, helping the Raiders (5-11) overcome a 10-point deficit and make their final case for interim coach Tom Cable retaining his job.
Tampa Bay (9-7) was tied for first place in the NFC South heading into December but was outscored 62-19 in the fourth quarter and overtime of losses to Carolina, Atlanta, San Diego and Oakland down the stretch.
“It’s very disappointing. … I’m sick for our players, and our fans, more than anything,” Bucs coach Jon Gruden said.
Losses to the Panthers and Falcons ended realistic hopes of repeating as division champions. More puzzling, though, were setbacks the last two weeks at home—where the Bucs were 6-0 before this month—against teams with losing records.
“I know we let down a lot of people … and we apologize for that,” quarterback Jeff Garcia said. “We, as a team, are better than what we have put on the field in the last four weeks.”
It’s certainly not the way Tampa Bay’s normally reliable defense wanted to go out under longtime defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who’s leaving to join his son, Lane, at the University of Tennessee.
Oakland fired Lane Kiffin as its coach four games into this season, replacing him with Cable, who has won two straight and is 4-8 since taking over. He will meet soon with owner Al Davis, who did not travel with the team to Tampa Bay.
“It’s all I can do. It’s the best I can do,” Cable said. “I want to be the head coach of the Raiders, but it’s not in my hands. But I certainly know I put this team together and got it going in the right direction, and today proved that.”
The Raiders were mum about Davis, but the Oakland Tribune reported doctors advised him to not fly across the country because of some swelling in his leg. It was believed to be just the second time he has not attended a game since becoming a part of the organization in 1963.
Davis missed what Cable described as the team’s “best effort from top to bottom.”
“We went after the game that whole way,” Cable said. “Our goal was to match the intensity of a team trying to get into the playoffs.”
Russell threw for 148 yards and two touchdowns for the Raiders, who looked as though they were out of the game after being outgained 168-21 in the third quarter. Tampa Bay went up 24-14 with a field goal and touchdown in the first four minutes of the fourth period.
But Oakland’s young quarterback rebounded from throwing an interception that Sabby Piscitelli returned 84 yards to the Raiders’ 11 to set up Carnell “Cadillac” Williams’ 8-yard TD run.
A 43-yard pass interference penalty led to a 12-yard TD pass to Johnnie Lee Higgins that trimmed Oakland’s deficit to 24-21, and that was just the beginning of the end for the frustrated Buccaneers.
Williams, who missed the first 10 games of the season because of a career-threatening injury to his right knee from September 2007, hurt his left knee at the end of a 28-yard gain in front of the Bucs bench.
That drive stalled on downs at the Oakland 33, and Bush took over from there. He slipped through the grasp of would-be tacklers Kevin Carter and Jovan Haye on his 67-yard TD burst and carried repeatedly on the Raiders’ next possession to burn the clock and set up Sebastian Janikowski’s 25-yard field goal that made it 31-24 with 1:09 to go.
Bush, playing a bigger role because Justin Fargas and Darren McFadden were hobbled by injuries, carried 14 times for 48 yards in the first three quarters. He gained 129 on 13 attempts in the fourth quarter.
“I knew it was all on me,” Bush said. “I’m hoping that I made a statement.”
The Bucs gave up 564 yards rushing and allowed Carolina, Atlanta and San Diego to convert 21 of 37 third downs the previous three weeks. Oakland finished with 192 yards rushing and converted 6 of 13 third downs.
Garcia threw for 257 yards, including a 58-yarder to Michael Clayton for a third-quarter touchdown that erased Oakland’s 14-7 halftime lead. Williams finished with a season-best 78 yards rushing on 12 carries.
“This collapse in this last month of the season is something that none of us ever would have expected,” Garcia said. “It definitely hurts. It’s going to stick with us for a long time after this day.”
Russell was 14-of-21 and was intercepted once. He threw a 3-yard TD pass to Chaz Schilens in the second quarter. … Fargas left the game with a knee strain and McFadden didn’t finish because of an ankle sprain. … Bucs LB Derrick Brooks left with a hamstring injury that prevented him from chasing Bush on his long TD run.