Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning reacts after throwing an interception against the Dallas Cowboys in the first quarter of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

At the beginning of the season, many of us looked at the schedule and knew that weeks 11-13 would be tough.  To go to Foxborough for the annual meeting against the Pats, followed by hosting games against the Chargers and Cowboys was going to be a rough stretch and many thought the Colts would drop 1, maybe 2.

Nobody anticipated, though, that the Colts would lose all three of those games, and would lose the way they did.  Eleven interceptions by Peyton Manning, four of which were returned for TDs, tell the singular story of that stretch.  Against both the Pats and the Cowboys, the Colts were still in it in the end, but in both cases an interception ended the Colts’ potential game-winning drive.

Tonight, the Cowboys started quickly, marching down the field on their opening drive and running all over the Colts’ D.  On the Colts’ first possession, Manning was intercepted when he threw into double coverage on Reggie Wayne.  Wayne didn’t turn defender quickly enough on that play, but it was also an ill-advised throw.  The Cowboys converted that drive to a field goal and kicked back to the Colts.  Again, Manning threw an ill-advised pass to Blair White — it was intercepted and returned for a TD, putting the Colts in a fast 17-point hole.

Manning led a beautiful 15 play, 86-yard drive for a decisive TD pass to Garcon, and it appeared that the game was back on.  The Cowboys and Colts traded possessions without scoring before the half, but to open the second half, Manning led yet another great drive – 4 plays, 80 yards and a nice pass to Reggie Wayne – to pull back within 3.  Two series later, Manning threw yet another pass that was intercepted and returned for a TD.  He came back to lead yet another 80-yard drive, capped off with an awesome 40-yard pass to Reggie that was called down at the 1 yard line.  Eric Foster checked in as FB, and Javarris James followed Foster into the end zone to pull within 6.

The defense held on the next series, and recently re-signed WR Taj Smith made a great special teams play, blocking the punt and recovering it for a touchdown.  The Colts took the lead for the first time in the game, and the tide was turning… right?  The Cowboys took the ball all the way down the field, and the Colts made a solid goal line stand to force a field goal attempt.  Unfortunately, Eric Foster committed a penalty on the attempt and gave the Cowboys a fresh set of downs.  They used those downs to convert a touchdown and 2-point conversion.

Manning reached back into his bag of tricks – the one that served him so well last year – and marched the team down to tie the game at 35 on 81-yard drive capped by a Javarris James touchdown.  After the teams traded possessions in overtime, Manning threw his final interception and the Cowboys converted it into the game-winning field goal.

At this point, unless the Jaguars suffer a Titans-esque collapse, the Colts must absolutely win out and hope the Jags lose another of theirs (other than to the Colts).  Otherwise, Colts fans will be looking ahead to the draft far earlier than they have been used to.  Perhaps offensive linemen should deserve our particular attention.

*CORRECTION: if the Colts win out, and the Jags win their other games, the Colts will win on tie-breakers.  Still, they must win out.