NFC East Reporter
The excitement of the finest playoff game of Dak Prescott’s career only lasted until he realized what team he’d play next.
The Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback was electric Monday night, throwing four touchdown passes as he ousted Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But the prize for that was a trip to San Francisco to face the team that caused him nightmares last year.
“(For) me and this team, that’s a scar,” Prescott said, remembering how the 49ers knocked the Cowboys out of the playoffs one year ago. “That one hurts. It will hurt for the rest of my career.”
Yes, that 49ers-Cowboys wild-card game — won by the 49ers, 23-17 — really was that memorable, as the postseason battles between these two storied franchises almost always are. When the Cowboys (13-4) and 49ers (13-4) meet in the divisional playoffs at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday (6:30 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), it will be the ninth time Dallas and San Francisco have faced off in the playoffs.
The Cowboys have won five of them. The 49ers have won three. And so many of them have become NFL classics. The rivalry has been filled with great games and great moments, miracle victories and agonizing defeats, with everything from Jimmy Johnson’s guarantee to “The Catch.”
Here’s a look at some of the greatest playoff games from one of the greatest NFL playoff rivalries of all time:
2022 NFC wild–card round: 49ers 23, Cowboys 17
Late-game chaos summed up the 2022 wild-card affair. (Getty Images)
The first playoff matchup between these two franchises in 27 years came with one of the strangest endings. The Cowboys had rallied from a 23-7 fourth-quarter deficit to pull within six points as they turned an interception from 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo into a 5-yard touchdown run by Prescott with 8:02 remaining.
That’s where things got weird.
The 49ers appeared to seal the game on a 10-yard run by wide receiver Deebo Samuel with about a minute remaining, but a replay review revealed he was just short of the first down. The 49ers tried to go for it on 4th and 1 from the Dallas 38, but a false start penalty forced them to punt.
That gave Dallas the ball at their own 20 with 32 seconds remaining and no timeouts. They used three plays, including a hook-and-lateral, to get into 49ers’ territory with 14 seconds remaining. But on second-and-1 from the 41, Prescott ran up the middle — not toward the sidelines — for 17 yards and slid at the 24-yard line with about eight seconds to go. On his way to the line of scrimmage to spike the ball and set up one final heave, he bumped into umpire Ramon George. When he finally snapped the ball, time had expired.
The 49ers celebrated. Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy was told the play was being reviewed and “they were going to put time back on the clock.” “They” didn’t, leaving even 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan to marvel at the end-game chaos.
“I’m still trying to figure out where I’m at,” he said.
1994 NFC Championship: 49ers 38, Cowboys 28
The 49ers rode a blazing start in 1994 against the Cowboys to reach the Super Bowl. (Getty Images)
It’s hard to imagine a game starting out worse than it did for the Dallas Cowboys — a team coming off back-to-back Super Bowl championships and looking like a real threat to win a third. Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman’s third pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. His fifth was fumbled by wide receiver Michael Irvin, setting up another 49ers touchdown. Then Cowboys wide receiver Kyle Williams fumbled the ensuing kickoff, setting up another 49ers touchdown.
Three Cowboys turnovers in the first 4 ½ minutes. Three 49ers touchdowns in the first 7 ½ minutes. Fans were still settling into their seats at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, yet the 49ers had a 21-0 lead.
The Cowboys did fight back, even pulling within 24-14 on an Emmitt Smith touchdown run with 1:56 left in the first half. But this was the 49ers’ day, and they even responded with a touchdown pass from quarterback Steve Young to wide receiver Jerry Rice to make it 31-14 at halftime.
Aikman ended up completing 30 of 53 passes for 380 yards and two touchdowns, including 12 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns to Irvin. But Dallas couldn’t overcome all the turnovers, including his three interceptions.
Still, even in defeat, Aikman considered this game one of the finest moments of that Cowboys era.
“It’s the game I’m most proud of, as strange as that sounds,” he once told NFL Films. “I’m proud of the way we responded, and I believe we showed the football world why it was that we had been champions.”
1993 NFC Championship: Cowboys 38, 49ers 21
Emmitt Smith’s two touchdowns propelled Dallas in 1993. (Getty Images)
Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson was driving to dinner days before the NFC Championship Game when he heard former Cowboys, then-Giants coach Dan Reeves being interviewed on a radio station in Ft. Worth, Tex. Reeves predicted the Cowboys would win, which led to a debate about whether they actually would.
That’s when Johnson decided to call in and make it clear that they would, in fact, beat the 49ers.
“We will win the ballgame,” Johnson declared over the airwaves. “And you can put it in three-inch headlines. We will win the ballgame.”
Johnson got the headlines in the paper the next morning, and the validation a few days later. His fired-up players scored three touchdowns in the final 10 minutes of the first half to open up a 28-7 lead. The Cowboys didn’t even stumble when they lost quarterback Troy Aikman in the third quarter to a concussion that sent him to the hospital.
Backup Bernie Kosar came in and went 5-for-9 for 83 yards and threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to Alvin Harper late in the third quarter. But it was running back Emmitt Smith who carried the day, totaling 173 yards — 88 rushing and 85 receiving. He scored two touchdowns, too.
1992 NFC Championship: Cowboys 30, 49ers 20
The Cowboys advanced to their first Super Bowl in 14 years in 1992 (Getty Images).
The 49ers were the NFL’s powerhouse team in the late 1980s and were still clinging to their power in the early 1990s. This game is considered the one that marked the changing of the guard and established the Cowboys as the dominant team of their time.
Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith dominated this game, rushing for 114 yards and a touchdown while also catching seven passes for 59 yards and a touchdown. But he wasn’t the one involved in the game’s most decisive play.
The Cowboys had blown a chance to put the game away when they passed up an easy field goal with 7:13 remaining and Smith was stopped on a fourth-and-goal run from the 1. The 49ers quickly responded by marching the length of the field for a 5-yard touchdown pass connection between future Hall of Famers Steve Young and Jerry Rice to pull within 24-20 with 4:22 remaining.
Everyone assumed the Cowboys would try to run out the clock with Smith. But on the next play, Troy Aikman hit Alvin Harper on a slant, and he raced 70 yards to the 49ers’ 9-yard line. Three plays later, Aikman threw a short touchdown pass to Kelvin Martin, and the Cowboys were off to their first Super Bowl in 14 years.
1981 NFC Championship: 49ers 28, Cowboys 27
Dwight Clark produced one of top plays in NFL history with “The Catch” in 1981. (Getty Images)
This is simply one of the most famous games in NFL history, with one of the most iconic plays. Any list of the top moments in the history of the league will have “The Catch” up near the top.
The Cowboys became “America’s Team” with their dominance in the 1970s, but the 49ers had established themselves as the team to beat in 1981. They not only went 13-3 in quarterback Joe Montana’s first full season as a starter, they also pounded the Cowboys 45-14 in Week 6.
This meeting was much closer. The two teams went back and forth all game long. The Cowboys rode their more traditional ground attack with running back Tony Dorsett, who had 91 yards and a touchdown. The 49ers ran their new West Coast offense to near-perfection as Montana threw for 286 yards and three touchdowns, though he did add three interceptions.
The Cowboys took a 27-21 lead early in the fourth quarter on a touchdown pass from quarterback Danny White. And defensive back Everson Walls even picked off Montana on the 49ers’ next drive.
But this game became historic when the 49ers got the ball back at their own 11 with 4:54 remaining. Montana marched them methodically down the field, using 12 plays to get them to the Cowboys’ 6 with 58 seconds to go.
And that’s when it happened. On a third-and-3, Montana rolled right as three Cowboys pursued him and saw tight end Dwight Clark breaking free from his coverage. So Montana threw the ball into the back of the end zone where Clark leapt high over Walls and caught the ball in his fingertips for the touchdown and a 28-27 lead.
No one really remembers what happened next, but the Cowboys still had 38 seconds to go and a 31-yard pass from White to wide receiver Drew Pearson quickly got them to the San Francisco 44. But on the next play, he was sacked by defensive end Lawrence Pillers and fumbled. Defensive tackle Jim Stuckey’s fumble recovery is really what clinched the 49ers’ first Super Bowl berth.
But “The Catch” is the miracle that stood the test of time.
“I thought it was too high,” Clark said that day, according to The Sporting News. “I don’t know how I caught the ball. How does a lady pick up a car when it’s on top of her baby? You get it from somewhere.”
1972 NFC divisional round: Cowboys 30, 49ers 28
Dallas stormed back to stun San Francisco in 1972. (Getty Images)
The Cowboys had beaten the 49ers in both of the previous NFC Championship games, but this was starting to feel like the Niners’ big chance. Just one month earlier in Dallas, they had routed the Cowboys, 31-10. And in this game, San Francisco got off to a perfect start.
It started when Vic Washington took the opening kickoff at Candlestick Park 97 yards for a touchdown and a very quick 7-0 lead. The 49ers would expand that to 21-3 on the strength of two second-quarter touchdown runs. And his third touchdown run in the third quarter put the 49ers up 28-13 as the fourth quarter began.
But that’s where “Captain Comeback” took over.
Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach had spent most of this season as a backup thanks to a shoulder he injured in the preseason. But in this game, starting QB Craig Morton was a disaster, completing just 8 of 21 passes for 96 yards, with two interceptions and a fumble. So late in the third quarter, Cowboys coach Tom Landry turned to Staubach.
And Staubach delivered. He completed 12 of 20 passes for 174 yards, despite being sacked four times in his brief appearance. Most importantly, he threw two touchdowns in the final 90 seconds of the game — with a successful onside kick in between — to turn a 28-16 deficit into a 30-28 win.
It was a comeback that even Landry called “just unreal.”
“San Francisco, they couldn’t believe they lost,” he said. “Which I can understand because they had it won.”
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
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