Two months ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers seemed to be well on their way to a division title.
Now, they have little choice but to embrace a spoiler's role.
Times – and goals – have changed markedly as the Bucs prepare to face the Cowboys in Saturday night's nationally televised matchup at Raymond James Stadium, where a sellout crowd will see a reeling franchise determined to cripple the playoff hopes of America's Team.
"We do want to put on a show for our fans and play the spoiler,'' said left tackle Donald Penn, who is gearing up to neutralize Dallas linebacker DeMarcus Ware, one of the NFL's premier pass rushers. "You don't want to get embarrassed on national TV … you've got a lot of people watching.''
Also looking on will be the Glazers, Tampa Bay's owners, who have witnessed the Bucs drop seven consecutive games to fall into the NFC South basement at 4-9.
Last week's 41-14 setback at Jacksonville, fueled by a franchise record-tying seven turnovers, ramped up speculation about the job security of head coach Raheem Morris.
While the Cowboys are playing for an NFC East title, the careening Bucs are playing for pride.
Struggling Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman talked Wednesday about a conversation he had with veteran quarterback Jeff Garcia, focusing on motivation.
"He talked about when he was in a situation like this many years back,'' Freeman said. "Jeff said, 'Right now, playoffs are not going to happen, so what you need to do is find something to play for. One is being a spoiler.'
"Dallas is kind of on the bubble right now at 7-6, so I can't think of anything happier than to go out and get a win this week and put a damper on their hopes. I'm really looking forward to the matchup on Saturday night on NFL Network. It should be exciting.''
Finishing up his ninth NFL season, Bucs center Jeff Faine has been through his share of prime-time games.
"At this point of my career, it's another game,'' Faine said. "It's (national TV) not something I pay attention to.''
But knowing other players, coaches and executives will be watching makes Saturday night's game special for some.
"It's exciting to play on national TV against a good team,'' said rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster, who registered his first pro interception at Jacksonville and leads the Bucs with 99 tackles. "I'm looking forward to playing on a national stage and getting a chance to show we're getting better and we can compete. It's a good opportunity to go out there and have some fun.''
In Tampa Bay's first prime-time appearance since 2008, the Bucs defeated Indianapolis 24-17 on Oct. 3, setting a franchise mark at home by rolling up 466 yards.
"Saturday should be great and it should be fun,'' Bucs linebacker Geno Hayes said. "The Cowboys have a dynamic offense, but I believe if we stick to our core beliefs, we'll win.''
Rookie defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, anticipating his fourth consecutive pro start, sounded eager to demonstrate his progress in front of a national audience.
"We've got to have a good four-man rush this week,'' Bowers said. "The game's pretty much going to be on our shoulders and we take that as a challenge. I've learned a lot about my teammates through this tough stretch. I see no quit around here. For a 4-9 club, I see a lot of effort. I'm confident that's what everyone else will see come Saturday night.''