There are certain matchups in sports that conjure up memories of epic matchups that determined championships and legacies. On Sunday, the 49ers and Cowboys will renew a postseason rivalry that dates to the Cowboys' first Super Bowl run over a half-century ago. The 49ers' dynasty also began with a win over the Cowboys in one of the greatest games ever played. The rivalry peaked in the 1990s, when the two teams battled for league supremacy.
You can't write the story of the NFL without a chapter dedicated to the 49ers-Cowboys rivalry. The two teams have met in the playoffs on eight occasions, with the winner going on to hoist the Lombardi Trophy five times. The Cowboys currently hold a 5-3 advantage. Along with championships, the games defined the careers of legendary players and coaches that include Tom Landry, Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, Steve Young and Emmitt Smith, among others.
Below we rank the eight 49ers-Cowboys playoff games as we anticipate the ninth meeting between the two storied franchises in Sunday's divisional round playoff game.
8. 1971 NFC Championship Game: Cowboys 14, 49ers 3
The Cowboys' first championship postseason run included a low-scoring win over the 49ers. Dallas' running game and three forced turnovers were the difference in this one. Led by quarterback Roger Staubach's 55 yards, the Cowboys' offense chewed up 172 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Duane Thomas, who issued the silent treatment to the media and his teammates all season, scored the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal the Cowboys' second consecutive Super Bowl berth. Dallas' "Doomsday Defense" picked off 49ers Pro Bowl QB John Brodie three times. The 49ers' defensive effort was spearheaded by Cedrick Hardman, who sacked Staubach 3.5 times.
7. 1970 NFC Championship Game: Cowboys 17, 49ers 10
The first playoff showdown between the two teams was for the right to play in Super Bowl V. While Brodie threw for 160 more yards than his counterpart, Craig Morton, his two interceptions contributed to the 49ers losing in front of their home fans. The Cowboys offense was led by Thomas, whose 143 rushing yards included a 13-yard touchdown run.
Trailing 17-3, the 49ers pulled to within one score but were turned over on downs with two minutes left. It was the final playoff victory in a Cowboys uniform for Morton, who was benched in favor of Staubach during the 1971 season.
6. 2021 wild card: 49ers 23, Cowboys 17
While a close game, the fact that it didn't happen deeper in the playoffs is why it is lower on the list. San Francisco dominated play for most of the day before the Cowboys made it close with two fourth-quarter scores.
Dallas had a chance to complete the comeback after getting the ball back at its own 20-yard-line with 32 seconds left. Three completions got the Cowboys past midfield, but Dallas ran out of time after Dak Prescott took off on a 17-yard run. Prescott spiked the ball in an effort to stop the clock as time expired.
5. 1993 NFC Championship Game: Cowboys 38, 49ers 21
Jimmy Johnson was on his way to dinner when he overheard a local radio station debating whether or not his Cowboys could win a second consecutive NFC title game over San Francisco. Instead of listening to the debate, Johnson decided to weigh in himself.
"We will win the ball game," Johnson said on the air. "And you can put it in three-inch headlines. We will win the ball game."
Upon his quotes making national headlines, Johnson was assured by his players that they would cash his check. The outcome was never in question, as Dallas raced out to a 28-7 lead in front of the hometown fans. Not even an early exit from Aikman (who was hospitalized after sustaining a concussion) would stop the Cowboys, who iced the game on Bernie Kosar's third-quarter touchdown pass to Alvin Harper.
The Cowboys offense was led by Smith, the league's MVP that season. Smith scored two touchdowns while gaining nearly as many receiving yards (85) as rushing yards (88). The Dallas defense recorded four sacks of Young while holding Rice to 83 yards on six receptions. The Cowboys would successfully defend their title after defeating the Bills in Super Bowl XXVIII.
4. 1972 divisional round: Cowboys 30, 49ers 28
Dallas had defeated San Francisco in the previous two NFC Championship Games. But in 1972, the 49ers routed the Cowboys during the regular season and held a 28-13 lead through three quarters in the divisional round. The fourth quarter, however, was dominated by Staubach, who engineered three scoring drives that included his game-winning touchdown pass to Ron Sellers. It was one of 23-career, fourth-quarter comeback wins for Staubach, whose penchant for late-game wins earned him the nickname "Captain Comeback." Dallas also received two interceptions from defensive back Charlie Waters, who helped hold 49ers quarterback Brodie to just 150 yards passing.
3. 1994 NFC Championship Game: 49ers 38, Cowboys 28
The motivated 49ers raced out to a 21-0 lead on the strength of two forced turnovers. Dallas cut the deficit to 24-14 before Young hit Rice on a 44-yard bomb just before halftime. Despite a valiant effort, the Cowboys never closed the gap while falling short in their quest to become the first team to win three consecutive Super Bowls. Despite falling short of their goal, Aikman has claimed that game as his proudest moment for the '90s Cowboys. With Smith playing through an injury, Dallas received a herculean effort from Irvin, who caught 12 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns.
But the star of the day was Young, who sealed the game with a 3-yard touchdown run. Montana's former backup took a victory lap around the field after leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl for a fifth time. Young would cap off his MVP season by throwing a record six touchdowns in San Francisco's Super Bowl win over the Chargers.
2. 1992 NFC Championship Game: Cowboys 30, 49ers 20
This was a changing-of-the-guard game, as the Cowboys dethroned the 49ers as the league's premier team. The Cowboys held a precarious 24-20 lead after Young and Rice connected on a 5-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. Instead of going conservative, the Cowboys went for the win as Harper took a slant pass 70 yards to set up Aikman's game-clinching touchdown pass to Kelvin Martin. The Cowboys offense was buoyed by Smith, who on a muddy track tallied 173 yards and two touchdowns. Dallas went on to rout the Bills 52-17 to win the franchise's first championship since 1977.
1. 1981 NFC Championship Game: 49ers 28, Cowboys 27
The NFC's powerhouse team during the 1970s, the Cowboys were hoping to make it back to the Super Bowl for the sixth time entering the 1981 NFC title game. The Cowboys would first have to get past a San Francisco team that whipped them by 31 points back in Week 6. The rematch would be an entirely different story, as the two teams dueled in one of the most competitive championship games in NFL history.
The Cowboys pulled ahead on Danny White's 21-yard touchdown pass to Doug Cosbie with 10:41 left. Trailing 27-21 with 4:54 left, Montana led the 49ers on an 89-yard drive that featured a heavy dose of running back Lenvil Elliott. Walsh's offense kept the Cowboys defense on its heels with sweeps, a reverse for receiver Freddie Solomon that gained 14 yards, and intermediate passes from Montana to Solomon and fellow receiver Dwight Clark (more on him in a second).
Facing a third-and-3 with 58 seconds left, Montana rolled to his right before being quickly met by three Dallas defenders. Despite the barrage of defenders, Montana stood tall and threw the ball in the back of the end zone. While he couldn't see him, Montana trusted that Clark would be in the back corner of the end zone. Sure enough, Clark had gotten open and was able to snare in Montana's high pass over defensive back Everson Walls. The celebration following "The Catch" was enough to upset a 4-year-old 49ers fan named Tom Brady, who was at the game with his parents.
The Cowboys still had a chance to steal a win in the game's final minute, and nearly did when White hit Drew Pearson on an intermediate pass near midfield. But Pearson was caught from behind by rookie defensive back Eric Wright at the 49ers' 44-yard line, saving a sure touchdown. On the next play, White fumbled after being hit by Lawrence Pillers. The ball was scooped up by defensive end Jim Stuckey, preserving the 49ers' ticket to Super Bowl XVI. It was the first of four Super Bowl trips during the decade for the 49ers, who won each time while earning the title as the Team of the '80s.
With victory in hand, Montana was approached by Cowboys Pro Bowl pass rusher Ed "Too Tall" Jones, one of the defenders who had pressured Montana on his game-winning touchdown pass.
"You just beat 'America's Team,'" Jones said to Montana.
"Well," Joe Cool replied, "You can sit on your ass with the rest of America and watch the Super Bowl."