Cowboys-49ers: Breaking Down the Best 12 Games in the NFL's Best Rivalry
In the NFL, the third week of the preseason is where the starters play the most. The first two weeks are used to weed out the fringe players, the guys in camp to help fill out squads, while the last exhibition is for the extra guys trying to make earn a spot on the end of the roster.
Teams also do not want to get their starters injured the final week*, so as to go into a new season already hurting.
* However, in 1999, the Rams played starter Trent Green in the final preseason game and he suffered a season-ending knee injury. If not for that hit by Rodney Harrison, backup Rams quarterback Kurt Warner might not have received his opportunity to play.
While not having the major impact on a football as many prior games, the Niner-Boy game this Saturday night conjures up images of prior battles. These games which included QB names like Eddie LeBaron, Don Meredith, John Brodie, Roger Staubach, Craig Morton, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Danny White, and Troy Aikman.
In the 40th year of Cowboy football (Dallas began playing in the NFL in 1960), even guys like Elvis Grbac and Bernie Kosar have played significant roles in key games of this long rivalry series.
The teams have played 32 games, with the 49ers holding a slight 16-15-1 advantage. The tie was on Thanksgiving Day in 1969, the last tie in Cowboys history. But while the Niners own the overall advantage, the Cowboys have won more of the important contests.
The Cowboys and 49ers met in the playoffs seven times, with an amazing six of those games for the conference championship, the Cowboys winning four of those contests. After five of those conference title games, the winner has advanced to win the Super Bowl.
While the Cowboys have played the Los Angeles Rams (remember when they were on the West Coast?) more often in the playoffs, those games were confined from 1973 through 1985, completely within the Tom Landry era.
No football rivalry since 1960 has encompassed such passion over a multi-decade span as the one between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys. NFC title games were settled during the early 1970s, early 1980s and early to mid-1990s.
In 1975, the Cowboys—coming off of a terrible 1974 campaign where they missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade—drafted 12 players who found their way on the opening day roster. These guys were known as the “Dirty Dozen.”
To honor that group of Cowboys players, here is a run-down of the top dozen games in the long-running Dallas-San Francisco rivalry:
12) September 25, 2005 @ the 'Stick - Dallas 34, San Francisco 31
Why is this early season game on the list, especially when neither team was playoff-bound? I was there.
When the 2005 schedule came out, I noticed the Cowboys were playing three of their first four games on the West Coast. Opening at San Diego, then home, then at San Francisco and at Oakland. Two games in the Bay Area in back-to-back weeks? I knew the 'Boys would stay out there and I was going out, too.
I am there. So my odyssey began to obtain tickets, book flights and arrange for hotels and stay the week in San Francisco at Napa Valley.
The game was meaningless compared to the experience, but the Cowboys did come back from a 31-19 fourth quarter deficit to win 34-31.
On Wednesday after the game, on my way up to Napa Valley, I stopped with my girlfriend at the time for lunch at a small seafood place in Sausalito, a nice town built into the side of the mountain across the bay from the city. You need to take the Golden Gate Bride to get there.
After ordering lunch, in walked Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. I mentioned to the waiter who he was and said that I wanted to buy his table a bottle of wine. After just perusing the menu and ordering a bottle for my table, I had noticed no bottles were higher than $55.
Surprisingly, Jones accepted my offer, raised his hand and waved. A few minutes later he got up, came over to my table, and sat down for about five minutes to talk football. He said how happy he was to see Cowboy fans from New Jersey supporting the team on the road.
On our way out, Jones again motioned us over and we sat with him at his table for another five minutes talking about the upcoming Oakland Raider game.
Not much here game-wise, but the experience (and weeklong trip to the San Francisco area) was worth a spot on the list.
11) November 20, 1960 @ the Cotton Bowl - San Francisco 26, Dallas 14
It was the inaugural season for the Cowboys*, and going into this contest the 'Boys were 0-8. They held only one brief one-point fourth quarter lead in week five against the St. Louis Cardinals. However, after a long 76-yard TD throw from Eddie LeBaron to Frank Clarke with 5:45 remaining in the game, the Cowboys took a five-point lead in the fourth quarter. Plus, they had the momentum.
*The original thought for the team name was the Steers.
That momentum lasted all of a few minutes as the 49ers pounded the air on the ensuing drive, eventually scoring on a draw play for the go-ahead TD. The Cowboys fumbled the NEXT TWO kickoffs to allow the 49ers to build on their lead and 17 overall points.
And thus, the 1960 San Francisco 49ers did not become the first team to lose to the expansion Cowboys.
The Niners were lead by John Brodie and 172 yards on the ground, while the Cowboys received TD passes form both LeBaron and rookie QB Don Meredith.
This game marked the first time that head coach Tom Landry alternated his quarterbacks every play, calling the play on the sideline and sending the QB in with the new play. Landry also performed this unusual trait with Roger Staubach and Craig Morton some years later.
10) November 7, 1965 @ the Cotton Bowl - Dallas Cowboys 39, San Francisco 31
This game holds no special meaning and, as one of the best offenses in the game, the 49ers dominated the offensive stats. They totaled 411 total yards and 26 first downs, compared to Dallas’ nine.
So how did Dallas chalk up 39 points? Future Hall of Famer (and at that time, kickoff return man extraordinaire) Mel Renfro ran the opening kick back 100 yards for a TD and, within one minute of game clock, the Cowboys turned two turnovers in the second quarter into defensive touchdowns.
A fumble recovery from defensive end George Andrie (a very underrated player) was immediately backed up by a 17-yard interception return for a touchdown by Hall of Famer Bob Lilly. It was to be Lilly’s only INT of his career.
Although the 49ers moved the ball at will, the Cowboy defense caused five turnovers.
9) December 12, 1977 @ the 'Stick - Dallas 42, San Francisco 35
This is the highest-scoring game in the rivalry, and what is amazing is both teams combined for 750 total yards and six scoring plays of over 20 yards. Ironically, with so many points, not one turnover was recorded.
The game started off quietly enough with each team getting a one-yard touchdown run. But then the fireworks began. Veteran Jim Plunkett threw four TDs, with scoring strikes of 10, 27, 1 and 47 yards. Two of their TDs were set up by first downs on fake punts.
Coming off some recent injuries, Cowboy QB Roger Staubach threw TDs of 36 and 22 yards while rookie Tony Dorsett scored on TD runs of 20 and 22 yards.
8) January 3, 1971 @ Kezar Stadium - Dallas 17, San Francisco 10
The game is the first of six NFC title games on the list, but it is by far the most boring. With a suffocating defense and typical Cowboy strong running game, after an opening-drive field goal by Bruce Gossett the 49ers were never really in the game until the end.
The fourth-quarter TD by San Francisco stopped a string of 23 straight quarters the Cowboys held their opponents' offenses without a TD.
Dallas rushed for 229 yards on 51 attempts—becoming a tougher team than the late 1960s squads—while the defense harried Brodie all afternoon.
The last game ever at Kezar Stadium did not go well for San Francisco, and the Cowboys headed to their first Super Bowl appearance.
7) November 12, 1995 @ Texas Stadium - San Francisco 38, Dallas 20
The game was a mismatch, on paper and on the field. The 8-1 Cowboys hosted the defending Super Bowl Champion 49ers, who were 5-4 and coming off two embarrassing home losses to New Orleans and Carolina.
The 49ers combined for 14 points in those two games, riding QB Elvis Grbac into the game. Grbac took over for an injured Steve Young several weeks earlier.
But when the second play from scrimmage went 81 yards to Jerry Rice for a TD, the real mismatch was on. George Seifert of the 49ers completely outcoached Dallas’ Barry Switzer, putting Rice as the slot receiver all afternoon and taking him away from new Cowboy cornerback (and former 49er) Deion Sanders.
In the slot, Rice was matched up against Cowboys linebackers all day, eventually grabbing five catches for 161 yards.
It also didn’t help Dallas that QB Troy Aikman was knocked from the game with his own injury. And the game began similar to the NFC title game (#5 on this list) ten months earlier: Quick scores for the 'Niners and early turnovers for the Cowboys.
As a Cowboy fan, the worst part about the game for me was that I was there with my dad to witness the carnage first hand.
However, the Cowboys would regroup and win their fifth Super Bowl title.
6) January 2, 1972 @ Texas Stadium - Dallas 14, San Francisco 3
Almost a year to the day both teams competed for the NFC title, but this time the game was held in Dallas. Similar to how Game no. 8 above was played, once again the Dallas defense and rushing attack manhandled the overmatched 49ers.
It was the second straight season in which Tom Landry beat his former assistant Dick Nolan with the Super Bowl on the line.
Both teams employed the 4-3 flex defense, a Landry innovation which drops back certain members of the defensive front line, confusing offensive linemen and the quarterback. Kind of like a zone scheme up front.
The Cowboy rushing attack didn’t get going until later in the game, but Staubach's scrambles helped the Cowboys extend drives, wear out the 49er defense and help the Cowboys win.
The Cowboys, easily the best team in football that season, went on the beat the Miami Dolphins for their first Super Bowl win.
5) January 15, 1995 @ the 'Stick - San Francisco 38, Dallas 28
Before the pizza guy even arrived at my friend’s house, the 49ers were leading 21-0. Committing three turnovers in the first five minutes, the Cowboys dug themselves into a deep enough hole they weren't able to escape from.
Even after clawing back to within 10 points late in the first half, Dallas made a ton of coaching mistakes, culminating in a late TD pass from Steve Young to Jerry Rice.
The game within a game was between 49er cornerback Deion Sanders and Dallas wide receiver Michael Irvin. When behind, Aikman continuously worked Irvin on short patterns, trying to set up Sanders for the big play.
With the Cowboys down 38-28 with about five minutes to go, Aikman had Irvin open for a TD, but Sanders bumped well before the ball arrived (no interference call was made), and the Cowboys' last chance died. After a few bad coaching decisions during the game, head coach Barry Switzer further made a fool of himself by getting a 15-yard penalty following the non-call.
One decision Switzer made which constantly killed the Cowboys was leaving rookie right tackle Larry Allen in the game with a leg injury, one which obviously hurt his ability to block oncoming rushers. San Francisco defenders were in Aikman’s face all day, especially late when Dallas was trying to mount a comeback.
4) January 23, 1994 @ Texas Stadium - Dallas 38, San Francisco 21
A year after upsetting the 49ers on their own turf, the Cowboys went to their second straight Super Bowl by beating the Niners at the comfy confines of Texas Stadium.
The game is known by the Jimmy Johnson pledge, “the Dallas Cowboys will win the game!” Johnson was on his way home the Thursday night before the game, and called into a local radio show proclaiming the Cowboys would win that upcoming Sunday.
The team seemed to accept the challenge as Troy Aikman helped the team to 251 first-half yards and a 28-7 lead. Even after Aikman left the game with a concussion, veteran backup and former University of Miami QB Bernie Kosar led the Cowboys on two scoring drives in the second half. The big play for Kosar came on a 3rd-and-9 with the Cowboys up 28-14, when he hit Michael Irvin for a 12-yard gain.
Said Johnson afterwards, "that was as big a play as any in the game,”
The Cowboy game plan was to isolate running back Emmitt Smith on the slower 49er linebackers, and the plan worked. Smith caught seven passes for 85 yards and a TD.
3) January 17, 1993 @ the 'Stick - Dallas 30, San Francisco 20
What resonates most about this game is a little-known event late in the fourth quarter that makes head coach Jimmy Johnson one of the best football coaches ever.
He had a great amount of confidence in his players and took very big chances.
In the slop of the 'Stick, Emmitt Smith churned his legs for 114 yards and a TD on 24 carries. But when it mattered most, and when everybody though Emmitt was getting called upon, Johnson threw a curveball to the 49er defense and won the game for the Cowboys.
Johnson’s first gamble came with the Cowboys up 11 and facing a 4th-and-goal on the 49ers' one-yard line. An easy field goal would give Dallas a two-touchdown lead and a likely victory. But Johnson wanted the jugular, and when Smith was stopped by the tough Niner defense, Steve Young marched his offense to a quick TD to make it a 24-20 game with over four minutes to play.
Everyone expected the Cowboys to milk the clock, but San Francisco had begun to stop Emmitt. That is when Johnson grabbed the headphones and barked up to offensive coordinator Norv Turner in the Cowboys booth, “Norv, get me a ^*$@*#& first down right now!”
Tuner called a quick pass for Irvin, but Aikman read man-to-man on Cowboy wideout Alvin Harper, who took the skinny post pass and rambled 70 yards to inside the 49er ten-yard-line.
"They took control in the second half," said 49ers coach George Seifert. "They made good calls in key situations. A lot of people would have been conservative, but they took chances and it worked for them."
Johnson had confidence in his people and it paid off. There was a changing of the guard, and after the game in the locker room Johnson uttered the famous line, “How 'bout them Cowboys?”
And on that day a new mini-dynasty was born.
2) December 23, 1972 @ the 'Stick - Dallas 30, San Francisco 28
It was simply the greatest Dallas Cowboy non-Super Bowl victory in their 40-year-history.
Down 28-13 with 1:48 left in the third quarter, head coach Tom Landry changed his approach* and substituted Roger Staubach in the game to replace the Cowboy starter, Craig Morton.
*If Landry had done the same thing two years prior in Super Bowl V, the Cowboys probably would not have lost the 16-13 game to the Baltimore Colts, and would have won two consecutive Super Bowls. Morton was miserable all day, throwing three interceptions.
A third Toni Fritsch field goal had Dallas within 12, but with 1:53 left in the game Staubach began to get hot. A short 49ers punt gave the Cowboys the ball on their own 45, and four quick passes later Staubach had his team in the end zone.
Now, luck had to play its part. The Niners could not hold on to the Cowboys' onside kick and Staubach made quick work of a tired Niners secondary.
A short nine-yard pass to backup Ron Sellers gave Dallas the comeback victory.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they ran into a buzz saw the following week, getting whooped by the Washington Redskins.
It was a second coming out party for Staubach, who—after leading the Cowboys to their first Super bowl win a year earlier—had missed most of the 1972 season with a separated shoulder.
Staubach took his opportunity and ran with it, and would not relinquish his grip on the most glamorous position in sports until his retirement after the 1979 season.
1) January 10, 1982 @ the 'Stick - San Francisco 28, Dallas 27
My friends would not remove the "Walter Iooss, Jr." Sports Illustrated cover from the wall of their recreation room for more than a decade. There it was, thumbtacked to the high wall, immediately visible when you walked halfway down the stairs.
The cover showed Dwight Clark leaping high in the air, ball in his fingertips, as my favorite Cowboy player that season, rookie Everson Walls—a 12th-round draft pick that year—watched helplessly.
The game was spectacular throughout, with the lead changing six times.
San Francisco took an early 7-0 lead on an eight-yard TD pass from Joe Montana to Freddie Solomon just 4:19 into the game. During the regular season, the 49ers staked their claim as the NFC’s best team as they walloped the defending NFC champion Cowboys, 45-14.
It appeared that another rout was just beginning.
But the Cowboys played better than the previous meeting, forcing the 49ers into six turnovers while committing three of their own.
The back-and-forth game took an upward turn when Montana and the Niners took possession of the ball on their own 11-yard line with 4:54 left. After an incomplete pass, the Cowboys defense was looking for more passes with their nickel package on the field. Fourty-niner Head Coach Bill Walsh crossed them up by running three straight times, gaining 31 yards.
A nice mixture of runs and passes, including a double reverse to Solomon for 14 yards, got the ball down to the Dallas six. On that third-and-3, Montana and Clark made history.
Interestingly, “The Catch” play to Clark was the same play as that first touchdown to Solomon in the first quarter, but the Cowboys had Solomon covered (Clark was the secondary receiver).
Montana knew where Clark was supposed to be and threw it to a location—the perfect location.
What many people forget is that there was still 51 seconds left and the Cowboys only needed a field goal to win. The first play from scrimmage was a 31-yard completion to Drew Pearson, who would have run for a go-ahead touchdown (or at a minimum run into field goal range), but was hauled down at the 49er 45-yard line on a horse collar-style tackle by 49er safety Eric Wright.
On the next play, quarterback Danny White—seeing a wide-open Tony Hill along the sidelines—readied himself to pass but was struck from behind, fumbling the ball. It was pounced upon by 49er Jim Stuckey and a new NFC Champion was crowned.
Similar to what happened to former Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach over a decade earlier versus the 49ers, Joe Montana had his coming out party in that 1981 NFC title game against the Cowboys, and his party would last for another decade.
San Francisco would go on to win the Super Bowl that season, the first of five that proud and distinguished franchise would earn.
Montana would go 5-0 in his 49er career against the Dallas Cowboys, going a combined 106-161 (66%) for 1,400 yards, 12 TDs and six interceptions. Three of those INTs came in that greatest game played between the two franchises.
Facing each other six times for a conference championship is the most ever between two teams, and since the Cowboys came into the league in 1960, both teams have combined to form the best rivalry in the NFL.
So when you sit down to watch the Cowboys-49ers game Saturday night, you might be watching the precursor to another chapter in the 40-year-old rivalry.
The best rivalry in the NFL.
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