When the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers get together, thoughts naturally turn back to the the 1981 NFC Championship Game held at San Francisco's Candlestick Park. That game marked the end of the Dallas heyday under Tom Landry and the ascent of the Niner's era under Bill Walsh and George Seifert. The final exclamation point was put on the shifting of the balance of power when San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana capped off a game-winning drive by finding Dwight Clark in the endzone for what became known to fans around the league as "The Catch". To further seal the transition, the Niners went on to claim their first Super Bowl victory by defeating the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl two weeks later.
While the '81 game may have been the highlight of this intense rivalry (so far), the seeds of fierceness were sown a decade before. The two franchises faced off during the 1970 and 1970 NFC Championships. They also met in the Divisional round in 1972.
The 1970 game, which was the inaugural contest for the conference championship, saw the Cowboys prevail despite San Francisco quarterback John Brodie outperforming his counterpart, Craig Morton, early in the game. The Cowboys were aided by a pair of crucial second-half interceptions by Lee Roy Jordan and Mel Renfro, both of which the Cowboys converted into touchdowns. When the final gun sounded, Dallas emerged with a come from behind 17-10 victory.
The following season saw the two teams meet again to decide who would represent the National Football Conference at the Super Bowl. The second time around the teams met at the newly opened Texas Stadium. Behind the efforts of All Pro passer Roger Staubach and Coach Landry's Doomsday Defense the Cowboys earned their second consecutive NFC Championship. The final score was 14-3 with the Cowboys leading from wire to wire.
After an early season injury to the team's starting quarterback, Landry's Cowboys had to scratch and claw their way into the playoffs by earning the NFC wildcard berth. Coming into the '72 Divisional game Dallas was the underdog and was playing on the road. It did not look like things would go their way until Captain Comeback, Roger Staubach, led the Dallas Cowboys to a pair of late game touchdowns and a 30-28 victory to set up a showdown with division rivals the Washington Redskins to determine who would represent the NFC in the biggest game of the season.
Just as it was not the first big moment in the history between the two storied franchises, neither was it to be the last. Dallas and San Francisco also squared off three consecutive times to determine the NFC Championship during the 1990's. Each time, the victor would go on to claim the Lombardy Trophy.
In 1992, the Dallas defense came up big for Jimmy Johnson and the Dallas Cowboys. They forced four critical turnovers during the game, and scored ten points off of those. Like the 1981 contest before it, the '92 game signaled a changing of the guard and is remembered as such in the NFL Network's series entitled " The NFL's Greatest Games". By the time the final horn sounded those ten points from turnovers were to play the critical role. The Cowboys prevailed 30-20.
The 1993 NFC Championship game started off with the famous "guarantee" provided by Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson and ended with his squad coming through on their coach's promise. Dallas was explosive from the get-go. The first series saw the 'Boys march 75 yards on the opening possession and then light up the scoreboard for 21 points in the second quarter. The San Francisco defense did manage to knock starting quarterback Troy Aikman out of the game in the second half but reserve passer Bernie Kosar stepped in and hit Alvin Harper for a 42-yard touchdown as Dallas rolled to a 38-21 victory on its way two giving Johnson his second consecutive Super Bowl win.
Like the 1970 and 1992 games, turnovers played a key role in determining the outcome of the 1994 match up. This time the pigskin would bounce in the favor of the team from San Francisco. Starting with the third play of the game, an Eric Davis interception of an Aikman pass, the football gods smiled on the Niners. In the end the Dallas offense would out-gain their opponent by over 150 yards, but the Niners would control the scoreboard. As the game drew to a close, turnovers would again hamper Barry Switzer's team as two late drives both ended with miscues. The final score was San Francisco 38 - Dallas 28.
As the 2014 offseason finally draws to a close and "real" football returns, Dallas will once again play host to the San Francisco as the teams square off in AT&T Stadium. There will be no conference championship on the line this Sunday but each squad will enter the season with those aspirations. Both teams will walk in the footsteps of legends that combined to win Super Bowl Championships, and hopefully the players who take to the gridiron will give us a contest worthy of those who have gone on before.