TAMPA — Already needing some help to reach the playoffs, the Bucs certainly didn't get an assist Monday from the NFL.
The league moved the Dallas at Philadelphia game from 1 p.m. to 4:15 Sunday. The Bucs need a win over Oakland and an Eagles victory over the Cowboys to earn the sixth and final seed in the NFC.
But if Tampa Bay beats the Raiders, in a game that kicks off at 1, the Eagles will know they are eliminated from the postseason before their game starts.
"We still have a ray of hope," Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "The only thing we can do is win our game on Sunday. I wish I had an explanation of why we've had a three-game skid at the worst possible time of the year, but we can't cry over spilled milk now. Just take advantage of the opportunity that's before us and that's to beat Oakland and see if we can get a little help from Philadelphia."
The Bucs (9-6) were down but not out a day after suffering their third straight defeat, 41-24 to San Diego. Belief that existed at the start of December has been replaced with a feeling of disbelief in the locker room.
"If you had told me three weeks ago that we would be in this position, I would've said, 'No way,' " running back Warrick Dunn said. "Because we had confidence, we had a swagger of being one of the elite teams in the league, and now we're just trying to keep a pulse to stay alive, and it's tough. It's tough on everybody, not just the players, but the coaches, also the fans. It's been one of those rides, the new ride at the amusement park where it's going down. It's the big drop. It's like that. It hurts."
Late collapses are nothing new under coach Jon Gruden. Since 2002, the Bucs are 13-19 in the regular season in December and January, including a 1-3 regular-season finish a year ago.
"It's on me, obviously," Gruden said. "It's not good enough. I take pride in preparing the football team, and if you want to evaluate all (the late-season) football games, I can probably defend myself a little bit better. Statistics are what they are. The reality is that it's not very good. Those are hard games. We have done some good things down the stretch in the latter parts of the season. But clearly over the last two seasons, we've had a lot of injuries and a lot of things that I've got to do better."
Gruden could not ignore that two teams with a role in Sunday's drama — the Raiders and Eagles — are teams he worked for before coming to Tampa Bay.
"Yeah and you throw in the Raider irony here (and) it's really going to be an exciting week at the Gruden household," he said. "… We are a 9-6 team. We've won some dramatic games in unbelievable fashion, and we've lost three games in a row, and it hurts. It stings. We've lost to three good football teams, and we've been tied or ahead in all three of them in the fourth quarter. I have to do a better job coaching, and that's clear.
"I've been involved in games where if we beat somebody, I really make some real good friends of mine mad, too. I've been in this league long enough to be in these types of situations. I've kind of learned over time to just worry about the things that you can control. We have to have a great Wednesday practice, we have to come out ready to play, and we've got to find a way to win."