There isn’t a day that goes by during each NFL season where I don’t think about the Kyle Williams fumble, Michael Crabtree in the endzone, the deflected fade against the Seahawks, Jimmy overthrowing Emmanuel Sanders, Tartt dropping the interception. The 49ers have had a rough, heartbreaking 10 years. This year, they have all the pieces in place to finally win on the big stage. CMC. Deebo. Kittle, Aiyuk, Bosa, Fred Warner. This is the year that it could finally happen for the 49ers and make all the pain of those missed opportunities fade away…. and the only thing standing in their way is their old foe- the Dallas Cowboys.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 90s, I am very well-versed in the history of the 49ers-Cowboys rivalry. However, I dare say that this hatred has gone soft. Our fan bases have forgotten the agony that these two Franchises have put us through, and it’s time to bring it back.
Let’s walk through the iconic moments of these two teams and get you in the right mindset prior to this week’s showdown on SNF.
How did it start?
1970 NFC Championship – Final Score: Dallas 17, San Francisco 10
This was the first season the 49ers won double-digit games, and they were true underdogs – they had to beat the intense Vikings team (see: Purple People Eaters) on the road prior to advancing to the Championship. To add in extra drama, the 49ers Head Coach Dick Nolan had spent 5 years as the Cowboys DC prior to becoming 49ers HC, and was facing off against his mentor Tom Landry. Unfortunately, the 49ers MVP QB had a sloppy game with multiple INTs, including the one that gave the Cowboys the go-ahead TD and final points of the game.
What’s even more memorable about this game than the heartbreaking INT is that this was the last game at the San Francisco 49ers Kezar Stadium, and after the loss things got ugly. According to reports, “hundreds” of fights broke out, resulting in dozens of arrests and multiple people being sent to the hospital. A disaster on all fronts, and a violent start to a rivalry that would be revitalized the following two years.
1971 NFC Championship – Final Score: Dallas 14, San Francisco 3
The 49ers won the NFC West for their second year in a row, but were stopped short by their formidable foe in the Championship. Their first year in Candlestick Park ended in heartbreak, but the Cowboys went on to win their first Superbowl against the Dolphins, 24-3. Their Defense was truly exceptional holding both opponents to 3 points in back-to-back games. Pretty impressive for Landry’s Cowboys.
1972 NFC Divisional Round – Final Score: Dallas 30, San Francisco 28
Long before the 4th quarter collapse against the Rams and the Chiefs (2019, 2021), there was the epic 4th quarter collapse in 1972. The 49ers got off to a quick 21-3 lead in the second, and by the end of the 3rd were up 28-13. The 49ers players and fans were excited, even joking around about how they would finally get the monkey off their back and send the Cowboys packing.
Then, the tides changed. At the start of the 4th quarter, Tom Landry benched his starting QB and put in future hall of famer and Cowboys Legend, Roger Staubach, aka “Captain Comeback.” Those 28 points were the last the 49ers would put on the scoreboard, and Staubach led the team to his first of many historic comebacks and won 30-28. In case you couldn’t keep score, the Cowboys swept the 49ers 3-0.
1981 NFC Championship Game – Final Score: Dallas 27, San Francisco 28
Nine years later, the 49ers finally would get their revenge. After a grueling 13-play drive, the 49ers were trailing 27-21, and facing 3rd and 3 with 58 seconds left. In one of the most iconic NFL plays in history, Joe Montana threw a fade to WR Dwight Clark who made a leaping catch in the back of the endzone. “The Catch” allowed the 49ers to clinch a 28-27 victory over the Cowboys for the first time in the postseason, and signified the end of the Cowboys dynasty in the NFC. This game also resulted in the first of Joe Montana’s 4 Superbowl Victories in the 1980s and crowned the 49ers as the new kings of the NFC. Postseason series now 3-1.
Fast forward another ten years and the rivalry is renewed. The Cowboys and 49ers faced each other in three back-to-back NFC Championship Games in 1992, 1993, and 1994. In each of these match-ups, the winner of this game went on to win the Super Bowl, so both franchises hold firm that they would have hoisted the Lombardi an additional time if the NFC Championship game was reversed.
1992 NFC Championship Game – Final Score: Dallas 30, San Francisco 20
Prior to this last Monday night’s victory over the Buccaneers, the 1992 NFL Championship Game in Candlestick Park was the Dallas Cowboy’s last playoff win on the road. Sadly, this means another heartbreaker for the 49ers, who only trailed by 4 points in the fourth quarter after a Young Rice TD. However, the Cowboys offense in 1992 was historically high-charged and a 70-yard gain was followed by an Aikman TD pass which solidified the game for the Cowboys and teed up an impressive 52-17 win over the Bills in the Superbowl.
1993 NFC Championship Game – Final Score: Dallas 38, San Francisco 21
The most iconic moment of this game happened off the field and on the radio. Prior to the game, Jimmy Johnson overheard a local radio station debating whether or not his Cowboys could win. He famously called into the station and stated live on air “We will win the ball game, and you can put it in 3-inch headlines. We will win the ball game.” A ballsy move during his last year as HC for the Cowboys, but he was proven right, and the lead was never in question. Dallas came out swinging and the 49ers could never claw their way out of the point deficit.
1994 NFC Championship Game – Final Score: Dallas 28, San Francisco 38
Beloved former owner Eddie DeBartolo panicked after two seasons were cut short of the big prize by their rival Dallas Cowboys. Eddie knew that losing a third time, to the same franchise would be too devastating to recover from, so he whipped out the pocketbook and signed 27 new players to the roster in the offseason. These additions included former Cowboys linebacker Ken Norton and all-pro cornerback Deion Sanders, who went on to win Defensive Player of the Year. It was the 49ers defense that allowed the 49ers to get out to a 21-0 lead after capitalizing on two Dallas turnovers. Troy Aikman famously credits this game as his “proudest” Cowboys moment however, as their team showed incredible resolve and never gave up.
This game led to the 49ers 5th Superbowl Victory, and would be the last time these two faced-off in the postseason for 27 years.
27 years later
2022 NFC Wild Card Game – Final Score: Dallas 17, San Francisco 23
Though the 2022 Wildcard game had a chaotic finish, the 49ers had a strong double-digit lead over the Cowboys most of the game and it was never really in question. A 4th quarter Jimmy G interception opened the door, but Dak and the Cowboys could not walk through it. In a bizarre move, Dak Prescott inexplicitly kept the ball himself and ran out the clock without making a final shot at the end zone.
The Cowboys have a commanding 5-3 lead in the postseason over the 49ers, but these aren’t the same teams that faced off in the 70s, 80s, 90s, or even last year. Anything is possible on Any Given Sunday, so let’s hope for another historic match-up between these two juggernaut franchises.