There are certain matchups in sports that conjure up memories of epic matchups that determined championships and legacies. On Sunday, the 49ers and Cowboys will renew a postseason rivalry that dates back to the Cowboys’ first Super Bowl run over a half-century ago. The 49ers’ dynasty also began with a win over the Cowboys in one of the greatest games ever played. The rivalry peaked in the 1990s, when the two teams battled for league supremacy.
You can’t write the story of the NFL without a chapter dedicated to the 49ers-Cowboys rivalry. The two teams have met in the playoffs seven times, with the winner going on to hoist the Lombardi Trophy five times. Along with championships, the games defined the careers of legendary players and coaches that include Tom Landry, Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, Steve Young, and Emmitt Smith, among others.
Here’s a look at the top-five 49ers-Cowboys games prior to Sunday’s wild-card playoff game between the two franchises.
5. 1993 NFC Championship: Cowboys 38, 49ers 21
Jimmy Johnson was on his way to dinner when he overheard a local radio station debating whether or not his Cowboys could win a second consecutive NFC title game over San Francisco. Instead of listening to the debate, Johnson decided to weigh in himself.
“We will win the ball game,” Johnson said on the air. “And you can put it in three-inch headlines. We will win the ball game.”
Upon his quotes making national headlines, Johnson was assured by his players that they would cash his check. The outcome was never in question, as Dallas raced out to a 28-7 lead in front of the hometown fans. Not even an early exit from Aikman (who was hospitalized after sustaining a concussion) would stop the Cowboys, who iced the game on Bernie Kosar’s third-quarter touchdown pass to Alvin Harper.
The Cowboys offense was led by Smith, the league’s MVP that season. Smith scored two touchdowns while gaining nearly as many receiving yards (85) as he did rushing yards (88). Dallas defense recorded four sacks of Young while holding Rice to 83 yards on six receptions. The Cowboys would successfully defend their title after defeating the Bills in Super Bowl XXVIII.
4. 1972 divisional round: Cowboys 30, 49ers 28
Dallas had defeated San Francisco in the previous two NFC Championship Games. But in 1972, the 49ers routed the Cowboys during the regular season and held a 28-13 lead through three quarters in the divisional round. The fourth quarter, however, who dominated by Roger Staubach, who engineered three scoring drives that included his game-winning touchdown pass to Ron Sellers. It was one of 23 career fourth-quarter comeback wins for Staubach, whose penchant for late-game wins earned him the nickname “Captain Comeback.” Dallas also received two interceptions from defensive back Charlie Waters, who helped hold 49ers quarterback John Brodie to just 150 yards passing.
3. 1994 NFC Championship: 49ers 38, Cowboys 28
The motivated 49ers raced out to a 21-0 lead on the strength of two forced turnovers. Dallas cut the deficit to 24-14 before Young hit Rice on a 44-yard bomb just before halftime. Despite a valiant effort, the Cowboys never closed the gap while falling short in their quest to become the first team to win three consecutive Super Bowls. Despite falling short of their goal, Aikman has claimed that game as his proudest moment for the ’90s Cowboys. With Smith playing through an injury, Dallas received a herculean effort from Irvin, who caught 12 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns.
But the star of the day was Young, who sealed the game with a three-yard touchdown run. Montana’s former backup took a victory lap around the field after leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl for a fifth time. Young would cap off his MVP season by throwing a record six touchdowns in San Francisco’s Super Bowl win over the Chargers.
2. 1992 NFC Championship: Cowboys 30, 49ers 20
This was a changing-of-the-guard game, as the Cowboys dethroned the 49ers as the league’s premier team. The Cowboys held a precarious 24-20 lead after Young and Rice connected on a five-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. Instead of going conservative, the Cowboys went for the win as Harper took a slant pass 70 yards to set up Aikman’s game-clinching touchdown pass to Kelvin Martin. The Cowboys offense was buoyed by Smith, who on a muddy track tallied 173 yards and two touchdowns. Dallas went on to rout the Bills, 52-17, to win the franchise’s first championship since 1977.
1. 1981 NFC Championship: 49ers 28, Cowboys 27
The NFC’s powerhouse team during the 1970s, the Cowboys were hoping to make it back to the Super Bowl for the sixth time entering the 1981 NFC title game. Dallas would first have to get past a San Francisco team that whipped them by 31 points back in Week 6. The rematch would be an entirely different story, as the two teams dueled in one of the most competitive championship games in NFL history.
The Cowboys pulled ahead on Danny White’s 21-yard touchdown pass to Doug Cosbie with 10:41 left. Trailing, 27-21, with 4:54 left, Montana led the 49ers on an 89-yard drive that featured a heavy dose of running back Lenvil Elliott. Walsh’s offense kept the Cowboys defense on its heels with sweeps, a reverse for receiver Freddie Solomon that gained 14 yards, and intermediate passes from Montana to Soloman and fellow receiver Dwight Clark (more on him in a second).
Facing a third-and-three with 58 seconds left, Montana rolled to his right before being quickly met by three Dallas defenders. Despite the barrage of defenders, Montana stood tall and threw the ball in the back of the end zone. While he couldn’t see him, Montana trusted that Clark would be in the back corner of the end zone. Sure enough, Clark had gotten open and was able to snare in Montana’s high pass over defensive back Everson Walls. The celebration following “The Catch” was enough to upset a 4-year-old 49ers fan named Tom Brady, who was at the game with his parents.
The Cowboys still had a chance to steal a win in the game’s final minute, and nearly did when White hit Drew Pearson on an intermediate pass near midfield. But Pearson was caught from behind by rookie defensive back Eric Wright at the 49ers’ 44-yard-line, saving a sure touchdown. On the next play, White fumbled after being hit by Lawrence Pillers. The ball was scooped up by defensive end Jim Stuckey, preserving the 49ers’ ticket to Super Bowl XVI. It was the first of four Super Bowl trips during the decade for the 49ers, who won each time while earning the title as the Team of the ’80s.
With victory in hand, Montana was approached by Cowboys Pro Bowl pass rusher Ed “Too Tall” Jones, one of the defenders who had pressured Montana on his game-winning touchdown pass.
“You just beat America’s Team,” Jones said to Montana.
“Well,” Joe Cool replied, “You can sit on your ass with the rest of America and watch the Super Bowl.”