TAMPA, Fla. - 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 yesterday 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," Dunn said.
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 a 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 by 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."
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 by 24-14 with a field goal and touchdown in the first four minutes of the fourth period.
But Bush, playing a bigger role because Justin Fargas and Darren McFadden were hobbled by injuries, gained 129 on 13 attempts in the fourth quarter. He had carried 14 times for 48 yards in the first three quarters.
"I knew it was all on me," Bush said. "I'm hoping that I made a statement."