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Dynasties, guarantees and ‘The Catch’: Cowboys and 49ers have a rich playoff history

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 13, 2022

By Des Bieler Washington Post

No one needed to educate Kyle Shanahan on the historical significance of a postseason meeting between the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys.

The 49ers’ coach, who is preparing his team to face the Cowboys on Sunday in the first round of the NFL playoffs, was an awestruck kid fortunate enough to have had a front-row seat for the titanic clashes between the early-’90s dynasties of San Francisco and Dallas. His father, Mike, was the 49ers’ offensive coordinator when they squared off with the Cowboys in three straight NFC championship games from 1993 to 1995.

“That was a part of my childhood that was just such cool football, because everyone knew those three NFC championships, those three years, those were the Super Bowl,” Shanahan told reporters.

As for whether his current players share his appreciation for this week’s matchup, Shanahan replied with a laugh, “Not at all.”

So for the potential benefit of certain youthful members of the 49ers, as well as for anyone else eager to take a toe-to-toe trip down memory lane, we are happy to provide an overview of the rich history of the Dallas-San Francisco playoff rivalry. We’ll start with their most recent meetings, which Shanahan remembers so well.

Jan. 15, 1995 – NFC championship game

The 49ers played like a team looking for sweet revenge after being ousted for two straight years at the doorstep to a Super Bowl. They jumped all over Dallas, scoring on a pick-six to start the scoring and racking up a 21-0 lead in the first quarter. The Cowboys were able to make things somewhat interesting in the fourth by cutting their deficit to 10 and threatening for more, but the 49ers’ defense stood tall (and may have gotten some help from a no-call on potential pass interference when Deion Sanders broke up a deep pass intended for Michael Irvin, who was having a huge game).

Final score: 49ers 38, Cowboys 28. Instead of an unprecedented Super Bowl three-peat for Dallas, it was San Francisco that marched to an easy win over the San Diego Chargers, quieting some of quarterback Steve Young’s doubters in the process.

Jan. 23, 1994 – NFC championship game

Dallas Coach Jimmy Johnson pulled a Namath by guaranteeing, and then delivering, a win. Of course, it helped that he had Troy Aikman, who played with his trademark efficiency before suffering a concussion, and Emmitt Smith, who damaged the 49ers on the ground and through the air. The Cowboys led 28-7 at halftime and, with the help of backup quarterback Bernie Kosar, cruised to a victory that more than justified their coach’s confidence. “I thought Johnson’s comments were insane,” 49ers star Jerry Rice said afterward. “But I guess they were accurate.”

Final score: Cowboys 38, 49ers 21. Dallas moved on to a second straight Super Bowl matchup with Buffalo and repeated as champions with a 30-13 victory.

Jan. 17, 1993 – NFC championship game

The 49ers were the most successful team of the 1980s, but the Cowboys served notice that a new NFC power had emerged. After a steady climb from a 1-15 record in 1989, the first season for Johnson and Aikman, Dallas took down an organization that had won four of the previous 11 Super Bowls. In wet and muddy conditions at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, the Cowboys took advantage of four turnovers while committing none and getting stellar games from Aikman and Smith. “To be on the cusp, against a great team on their field, and then break through, was unbelievable,” Dallas’s Daryl Johnston would say years later. “That was the best game that group played.”

Final score: Cowboys 30, 49ers 20. Dallas’s subsequent win over the Bills marked the first of three Super Bowl titles in a four-year stretch of dominance marred only by the near miss in 1995.

Jan. 10, 1982 – NFC championship game

Two words: “The Catch.” Dwight Clark’s leaping, fingertip grab in the back of the end zone that gave San Francisco a go-ahead touchdown in the final minute remains one of the NFL’s most iconic plays. As with the “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic hockey team two years earlier, however, the upstart 49ers still had some work to do. The Cowboys were down by just one point and had enough time to drive for a game-winning field goal, particularly after Danny White completed a long pass to Drew Pearson that got Dallas past midfield. One play later, though, White was sacked and lost a fumble, allowing Joe Montana to take the field for a pair of triumphant kneel-downs.

Final score: 49ers 28, Cowboys 27. San Francisco, which had not won a league title in more than three decades of existence to that point, followed its breakthrough by beating the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI and embarking on an NFL dynasty.

Dec. 23, 1972 – NFC divisional round

San Francisco held a 28-13 lead late in the game, but that only gave Roger Staubach an early chance to build his “Captain Comeback” credentials.

Having entered the game in the fourth quarter as a replacement for Dallas quarterback Craig Morton, who held the starting job most of the season while Staubach dealt with a shoulder injury, the former Naval Academy star engineered 17 unanswered points in the final quarter for a stunning road win.

Among the many other Cowboys deserving a share of the credit was kicker Toni Fritsch, the NFL’s first Austrian player who made all six of his field goal and extra point attempts (three each) and used his skills as a former national team soccer player to fool the 49ers with a rabona onside kick.

Final score: Cowboys 30, 49ers 28. Dallas would go on to be soundly beaten in the NFC championship game by Washington and its George Allen-led “Over the Hill Gang.”

Jan. 2, 1972 – NFC championship game

Dallas prevailed in a low-scoring slugfest that saw both sides fail to reach 250 yards. While the 49ers’ John Brodie labored through a miserable, three-interception passing performance, the Cowboys took much of the load off Staubach by running the ball 46 times for 172 yards and two touchdowns.

San Francisco, by contrast, had 16 carries for just 61 yards and no scores against Dallas’s “Doomsday Defense.” The victory was the ninth in a 10-game winning streak with which the Cowboys closed the season once Coach Tom Landry finally made Staubach his starter.

Final score: Cowboys 14, 49ers 3. Dallas held its next opponent to just three points as well in a resounding Super Bowl VI win over the Miami Dolphins that brought the Cowboys their first Super Bowl title after a string of playoff failures.

Jan. 3, 1971 – NFC championship game

The first postseason meeting between the Cowboys and 49ers was also the start of three straight seasons in which Dallas would knock San Francisco out of the playoffs. Playing in its final game at Golden Gate Park’s Kezar Stadium, San Francisco was enjoying its best season since moving to the NFL in 1950 from the All-America Football Conference.

The Cowboys had a derisive label of “Next Year’s Champions” to shake off, and they did just that by becoming the first champions of the newly created, post-merger NFC.

Dallas trampled its hosts with 229 rushing yards, 143 of which were gained by Duane Thomas.

Final score: Cowboys 17, 49ers 10. Dallas would have to wait one more year to attain the ultimate prize after falling to the Baltimore Colts (who had just moved to the AFC) in Super Bowl V.

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