The Cowboys and 49ers have a great playoff history – this post highlights a few of the outstanding moments in their NFL playoffs rivalry. Of course the most famous is the 1981 NFC Championship Game – commonly called “The Catch” game. But San Francisco and Dallas had a real playoff rivalry even before that 1981 NFC Championship Game, and the games in the 1990s were outstanding.
First NFC Championship Game
This playoff rivalry goes all the way back to the very first NFC Championship Game – the 1970 NFC Championship Game. That game was played at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.
Then a third-quarter play involving two borderline HOF’s – 49ers quarterback John Brodie and Cowboys LB Lee Roy Jordan – was pivotal. Lee Roy Jordan intercepted a John Brodie pass at San Francisco’s 13-yard line. Cowboys running back Duane Thomas scored a touchdown on the next play to put the Cowboys ahead 10-3. The 49ers got into Cowboys territory on their next possession, but this time HOF cornerback Mel Renfro intercepted a Brodie pass. Dallas running back Walt Garrison scored a touchdown following that interception to make it 17-3, Cowboys. Those 14 points in the third quarter off those turnovers were the difference and the Cowboys won 17-10 to earn a trip to Super Bowl 5 against the Colts.
The Colts won Super Bowl 5 on a last second field goal.
1971 NFC Championship Game
The next year, 1971, also came down to Dallas and San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game. The Cowboys and 49ers played each other in the first two NFC Championship Games. The 1971 NFC Championship Game was played in Dallas. Craig Morton had been the Cowboys quarterback in the 1970 NFC Championship but in 1971 it was Roger Staubach. The Cowboys defeated the 49ers for the second year in a row, and the Cowboys then won Super Bowl 6 against the Miami Dolphins.Embed from Getty Images
Roger Staubach Captain Comeback
In 1972, the Cowboys and 49ers faced each other in the playoffs for the third year in a row. This time in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. This game has been forgotten by many because it wasn’t documented well, and there isn’t much footage of this game. But it really is an NFL classic.
Craig Morton started the game at quarterback for Dallas. Roger Staubach missed the vast majority of the 1972 regular season with a separated shoulder. Morton started every regular season game that year for the Cowboys. In the Divisional Playoff Game, Morton threw two first half interceptions and the 49ers built a 21-3 lead in the second quarter.
San Francisco led 28-13 in the third quarter and Roger Staubach came off the bench for the Cowboys. Dallas continued to stall until they kicked a field goal with about six minutes left in the game. The 49ers led 28-16.
But San Francisco couldn’t run out the clock. With 2:02 left, the Cowboys started on their own 45, trailing by 12 points. In less than 30 seconds, Dallas had the ball on San Francisco’s 20. The Cowboys scored on the next play, and it was 28-23 with 90 seconds remaining. San Francisco’s home crowd grew silent. Then extremely tense after the Cowboys recovered the onside kick. Staubach scrambled for 21 yards on the next play. Soon afterward, he hit Ron Sellers for a touchdown to give Dallas a 30-28 lead. Two touchdowns in just over a minute.Embed from Getty Images
The 49ers rallied, however. A John Brodie completion got them to the Cowboys 30 yard-line, but an offensive holding penalty wiped the play away. With it went San Francisco’s chances. Dallas won 30-28, on the SAME DAY as the Immaculate Reception. It was the first big playoff comeback of Roger Staubach’s career, and the third straight season the Cowboys knocked the 49ers out of the playoffs.
Dallas San Francisco NFC Championship 1981
When Dallas and San Francisco met for the 1981 NFC Championship Game, that playoff rivalry already had real history behind it.
By 1981, the Cowboys were known as “America’s Team.” The Dallas Cowboys went to five Super Bowls in the 1970s and won two of those Super Bowls.
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. San Francisco leaped from losing records to a sparkling 13-3 record in 1981, a record that gained them home field advantage throughout the 1981 NFC Playoffs.
Heavy rains 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 in. He shared some amazing stories of getting Candlestick Park ready for the playoffs on the Game Before the Money Podcast – you can hear those in episode 60. Future U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco when the game was played, and she shared insight on the role the city’s Parks and Recreation Department played in preparing the field on the podcast, as well as the history of Candlestick Park.
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. Dwight Clark jumped in the air and caught what turned out to be the game-winning score after the extra point.Embed from Getty Images
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 play 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.”Embed from Getty Images
49ers Cowboys 1990s NFC Championship
But even THAT isn’t the end of this playoff rivalry narrative. The Cowboys and 49ers played each other again in the 1990s – this time in three straight NFC Championship Games. As amazing as the Catch Game was, to me this is the golden era of this playoff rivalry because these really were the two best teams in football at the time. These were hard-fought physical games with lot of emotion and a lot of greatness – pro football at its best.
Dallas won the first two of these games and then trounced Buffalo in two straight Super Bowls.
There was a lot of build up to the third straight NFC Championship between the two teams. Dallas was vying for an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl victory. San Francisco returned an interception for a TD early in the game for a quick 7-0 lead. By the end of the first quarter, the 49ers led 21-0 AT HOME. Champions do not fall easily, however, and the Cowboys soon scored on a long Aikman to Irvin touchdown on third and 23. With about six minutes left in the game, the 49ers led 38-28. Troy Aikman threw deep to Michael Irvin, and Deion Sanders bumped Irvin. The Cowboys wanted pass interference called and didn’t get it. The 49ers won the game and the Super Bowl. The next year the Cowboys won the Super Bowl again.Embed from Getty Images
San Francisco Dallas Playoffs 2021
In the 2021 season, the Cowboys and 49ers renewed that playoff rivalry 40 years after the Catch Game. Dallas trailed 23-7 going into the fourth quarter but scored 10 fourth quarter points for a chance to put together a game-winning drive. With 14 seconds left, Dak Prescott ran up the middle for 17 yards. He rushed to spike the ball to stop the clock, but couldn’t get the snap off in time. The 49ers won 23-17 – yet another exciting finish in what has turned out to be one of the great NFL rivalries in the playoffs.