IRVING, Texas (Nov. 19, 2006) -- Maybe the burden of an unbeaten season was becoming too much for the Indianapolis Colts. They sure played like it.
Peyton Manning and the Colts looked nothing like their perfect record Sunday, turning the ball over on four of their first six possessions and coming up empty on their final two drives to lose 21-14 to the Dallas Cowboys.
After close calls all season, Indianapolis (9-1) couldn't overcome this sloppy outing -- even against a club whose quarterback was making only his fourth career start and whose defense was missing its top performer.
"We've been playing with fire -- and the fire caught us," Colts coach Tony Dungy said.
Manning threw two interceptions after having thrown only three all year. He lost his first fumble of the season and Marvin Harrison lost his first since 2004. All told, Indianapolis had its most turnovers in its last 79 regular-season games, dating to Nov. 25, 2001.
Still, the loss could be somewhat of a relief. There won't be any more questions about chasing the hallowed mark of the 1972 Miami Dolphins or their own 13-0 start last season. The focus now returns to mundane topics like winning the division and becoming the AFC's top seed, all of which seems within reach considering the Colts' remaining foes are a combined 25-34.
"It's not a positive when you lose a game," said Manning, who also had a season-high 19 incompletions and was sacked twice on one drive after going down only 10 times all season coming in. "We're going to dissect the film and find things we can build on. It's been awhile since while since lost a regular-season game. But that doesn't make this less painful."
The victory is just as big for Dallas (6-4) as the loss is disappointing for Indianapolis.
Start with it being the most impressive win in coach Bill Parcells' four seasons. Then factor in that after being down 14-7, quarterback Tony Romo led two touchdown drives, then another to run out the clock, all in his first home start. And give the defense bonus points for playing so well in their first game since Greg Ellis, their captain and MVP thus far, was lost to an injury.
To team owner Jerry Jones, it was like "a couple of wins in the '90s that showed our team that they could do it," referring to clubs that won three Super Bowls.
With three wins in Romo's four starts, the Cowboys are two games over .500 for the first time all season. Four of the remaining six games are at home and the rest of the division is ailing, leaving Dallas in prime position for a big finish.
"I told the team (this win) ought to tell them something about what they're capable of doing," said Parcells, who in his 19 years in the NFL had never ended an opponent's perfect start this deep into a season. "If we keep playing like this, we have a chance to do something."
It sure didn't start out that way.
Romo lost a fumble on a sack by Dwight Freeney on the opening drive, then threw an interception soon after. He didn't get the Dallas offense inside the Indianapolis 20 until the final 30 seconds of the third quarter.
However, once he did, the Cowboys grabbed control for good.
Marion Barber III scored from the 5 to tie it early in the fourth, capping a 68-yard drive. Then Romo followed with an 80-yard series, again capped by a Barber TD, that put Dallas ahead for the first time. His last possession might've been the best because he kept Manning and the Colts from getting back on the field, using up the final 2:59.
"This is big," said Romo, who went 19-of-23 for 226 yards. "We've been trying to get ourselves a little momentum for awhile. We needed this win badly. ... This isn't our goal. This week it was, today it was. But our goal is much higher. This is a step in that direction."
Earlier this week, Romo found out he was the NFL's second-rated passer, behind only Manning. When Sunday's game ended, Romo walked off with the game ball in one hand and gave Manning a consoling pat on the head with his other hand.
Manning went 20-of-39 for 254 yards and was off from the start, failing to get any points out of Romo's early turnovers.
He put together a long drive just before halftime for a 7-0 lead, then had a chance to build on it at the start of the second half. Instead, his second pass was tipped and intercepted by linebacker Kevin Burnett, who returned it 39 yards for the tying score.
Manning put the Colts back ahead with another Manning-like drive, but his last two series had surprising finishes -- an incompletion on a deep ball on third-and-1, then passes into the end zone that weren't anywhere close to being caught after reaching the Dallas 8 with a little over three minutes left.
"We've been in similar situations and made plays in the past," Manning said. "Tonight we didn't make them."
Notes: Former Indianapolis kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed from 43 and 46 yards in the first half. Fans were so upset they booed a commercial he appeared in that was shown on the stadium monitors. ... Vanderjagt's last two-miss game was Nov. 17, 2002, when he and the Colts beat the Cowboys. ... Dallas safety Roy Williams had his second interception of Manning, impressive for someone with 16 in his career. ... Rocky Boiman, cut by the Cowboys in training camp, was one of the Colts' team captains.