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49ers vs Cowboys Meet Again 40 years after “The Catch”

The 1981 NFC Championship Game featured one of the greatest plays in NFL history. San Francisco WR Dwight Clark made a leaping grab of a Joe Montana pass to score the winning touchdown.

2021 NFL Playoff a Rematch of Classic NFL Game

The 2021 NFL Playoffs marks the 40th Anniversary of “The Catch” – a game-winning touchdown caught by 49ers receiver Dwight Clark. San Francisco defeated the Dallas Cowboys by a single point, 28-27, and moved on to play the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl 16.

The Cowboys and 49ers are scheduled to play again in the 2021 NFL Playoffs. It is coincidental that it happens on the 40th Anniversary of one of the most famous games in the NFL playoffs.

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1981 Cowboys and 49ers

NOTE: Read an updated version of the Cowboys and 49ers in the playoffs here.

In 1981, the Cowboys were known as “America’s Team.” The team built a winning reputation dating all the way back to the 1960s under the guidance of head coach Tom Landry and front office geniuses Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt. The Dallas Cowboys went to five Super Bowls in the 1970s and won two of those Super Bowls and built up a rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers. By 1981, the Cowboys earned a spot in the NFC Championship Game four times in the past five seasons.

The San Francisco 49ers didn’t line up with the same resume. The 49ers finished 2-14 in 1979 and also had a losing record in 1980, their first two seasons under new head coach Bill Walsh. Walsh gained notoriety as an offensive coordinator at Cincinnati and San Diego before taking the head coaching job at Stanford University and later, the 49ers. San Francisco leaped from losing records to a sparkling 13-3 record in 1981, a tally that gained them home-field advantage throughout the 1981 NFC Playoffs.

The rain fell upon San Francisco in the week leading up to the 1981 NFC Championship. There were concerns about the playing field at Candlestick Park and groundskeeper extraordinaire George Toma was brought into to assist San Francisco’s “Sod Squad” for the playoffs.

Toma shared the story of getting the field ready for the playoffs and specifically the championship game with The Game Before the Money. His stories will appear on our football history podcast within the next few weeks. There is a great backstory to the field preparations that involves another person that you would never had thought would be involved with NFL history.

Cowboys vs 49ers Playoff History

The Cowboys and 49ers owned a long playoff history together, all of it excruciatingly painful for the 49ers and their fans. The Cowboys defeated San Francisco in the first NFC Championship Game ever, for the 1970 season. The Cowboys duplicated that feat and beat the 49ers again in the 1971 NFC Championship Game. In 1972, Dallas crushed the hopes of the 49ers once more, this time in the Divisional Playoffs, as Roger Staubach led the Cowboys to a comeback victory. Dallas scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to erase a 15 point lead in the playoff affair hosted by San Francisco at Candlestick.

“We had some good teams,” 49ers Hall of Fame linebacker Dave Wilcox said on an episode of The Game Before the Money Podcast. “We always come up against those guys from Dallas, Texas, to give us problems. But hey, we got to play in some Championship games and almost made it to the Super Bowl, but not quite. And they were a good team. They had a lot of good players and we just didn’t make the right choices or run the ball right or make the right tackle or something, but we had fun doing it.”

Dwight Clark made “The Catch” in the 1981 NFC Championship

Those heartbreaking losses weren’t forgotten by the city of San Francisco when the two teams renewed the rivalry for the NFC Championship in 1981. The game was a thrilling back-and-forth contest. Dallas owned a 17-14 lead at halftime. San Francisco took the lead back in the third quarter, but the Cowboys struck back and took the lead again deep in the fourth quarter.

Joe Montana drove the home team down inside the Cowboys 20-yard line with less than a minute left. He rolled to his right and threw off balance into the end zone to avoid the Cowboys pass rush, led by Ed “Too Tall” Jones. Clark jumped in the air and brought the ball down for what turned out to be the game-winning score after the extra point. That touchdown etched Dwight Clark’s name in the NFL history books.

It almost wasn’t the game-winning score, however, as legendary Dallas receiver Drew Pearson caught a long pass from quarterback Danny White on Dallas’ ensuing possession. Pearson nearly scored on the play, but was brought down from behind by a horse-collar tackle from San Francisco’s Eric Wright. The tackle was legal at the time.

The big play stunned the crowd and placed Dallas knocking on the door for a game-winning field goal. The 49er pass rush rose to the occasion, however, and forced a fumble soon afterward. San Francisco recovered and preserved the history of “The Catch” made by Dwight Clark.

San Francisco at Dallas in 2021

The 2021 NFL playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys is an intriguing one. Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy has a long relationship with the playoffs as head coach of the Green Bay Packers. He guided them to a victory in Super Bowl 45, although the Cowboys haven’t been to the Super Bowl in decades. San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo recently guided the 49ers to a Super Bowl matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Playoff experience often counts for a lot in the playoffs, especially when it comes to quarterbacks. Indeed, very few quarterbacks even make conference championship games. Dallas QB Dak Prescott shows great leadership qualities, an often-overlooked ingredient to winning in the playoffs. He has come back strong after his injury.

The Cowboys scored the most points in the NFC this season (2021) and gave up the second fewest. (Tampa Bay gave up five fewer points.) Dallas also owns the highest point differential in the NFC (the difference between points scored and points given up). Teams that rank that high in all three categories often go far in the playoffs. Furthermore, Dallas has the home field advantage in this game.

NFL Playoff Experience Counts

Still, one can’t overlook playoff experience, and the 49ers proved they can win in the playoffs in recent years. They also proved they can win with their backs against the wall when they beat the Los Angeles Rams in the final week of the season to make the playoffs.

Nobody can predict when magic will happen. When the Cowboys and 49ers get together in the NFL playoffs, however, those two teams have a long history of producing exciting games. Don’t forget that they played each other in the NFC Championship three times in a row in the 1990s.  

The San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys have played many times in the playoffs.

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