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Know your history: The Cowboys-Steelers matchup

The rivalry of champions.


Rivalries usually generate between division foes, or at least teams within the same conference that meet frequently. For the Cowboys, two of their biggest rivals outside of their division have been the Packers and 49ers, both of whom they frequently came into contact with in the postseason at various points throughout history. But the fact that the Steelers are also considered a rival speaks to the greatness of these two franchises.

For starters, the Steelers are tied with the Patriots for most Super Bowl wins by a franchise with six, and the Cowboys are just behind with five. Both teams have appeared in the Super Bowl eight times, tied for second-most. And three of those occasions have come against each other; no two teams have met in the Super Bowl more than these two.

These two have also played 29 regular season games against each other dating all the way back to the Cowboys’ first ever game. Pittsburgh handed the Cowboys a 35-28 loss in which Steelers quarterback Bobby Layne outdueled the Cowboys’ Eddie LeBaron; Layne had 288 yards and four touchdown passes, while LeBaron threw 345 yards and three touchdowns, but with three picks.

The Cowboys currently lead the regular season series 16-13, and have won the last two matchups against Pittsburgh. The most recent one came in 2016, where Dak Prescott threw for over 300 yards for the first time in his NFL career and Ezekiel Elliott’s 32-yard touchdown with nine seconds left in the game gave Dallas the 35-30 victory. Prior to that, in 2012, it was Brandon Carr’s interception in overtime that set up Dan Bailey for the 27-24 win.

But when people think of the Cowboys and Steelers, they always think of those three Super Bowls. The first such contest was Super Bowl X, the culmination of the 1975 NFL season. Dallas had gone 10-4 and made the playoffs as a Wild Card team. They beat the Bud Grant Vikings and Chuck Knox Rams to become the first ever Wild Card team to reach the Super Bowl. The Steelers, on the other hand, had won the Super Bowl the year prior and finished 12-2 in 1975. They made easy work of Ted Marchibroda’s Colts and John Madden’s Raiders before moving on to the Super Bowl, where they ultimately won 27-17.

Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw led the way, throwing two touchdowns throughout the game while Roger Staubach’s three picks offset his own two touchdown passes. The game took a turn for the worse for Dallas early in the fourth quarter, when Pittsburgh got a safety to cut the Cowboys’ lead to 10-9. They then made two straight field goals and Bradshaw’s 64-yard bomb to Lynn Swann was the dagger play that extended the lead to 21-10. Staubach would score once more, but the game was already out of reach.

Still, that was a huge year for the Cowboys. The year prior, Dallas had finished 8-6 and missed the playoffs for the first time in eight years. They had also lost several key players, including Bob Lilly, “Bullet” Bob Hayes, John Niland, and Calvin Hill, throughout the offseason. The sense around the team coming into that year was that a rebuild was approaching, but they responded by reaching the biggest game of the year and coming up just short.

The two teams would meet again in the Super Bowl three years later, in Super Bowl XIII. This time around, the Cowboys were the defending champs and looking to win in consecutive years for the first time in franchise history. Dallas finished the season 12-4 and won the division before taking down the Falcons (led by GM Eddie LeBaron) and Rams to reach the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh won their first seven games of the year and finished 14-2, the best record in football. They blew out the Broncos and Oilers by a combined score of 67-15 to face off against Dallas.

As with the first Super Bowl between these two, this one was very close. Bradshaw threw three first half touchdowns, but the Cowboys defense scored off a fumble to trail 21-14 at halftime. The Steelers came out strong in the third quarter, scoring 17 unanswered points to extend the lead to 35-17 in the fourth quarter. Staubach nearly engineered another miraculous comeback, throwing two touchdowns late in the game, but there just wasn’t enough time in this one as the Steelers emerged victorious 35-31. The Cowboys became the first team to lose the Super Bowl a year after winning it.

Of course, the Cowboys would get their two consecutive Super Bowls two decades later with Jimmy Johnson, courtesy of the Buffalo Bills each time. But the next time the Cowboys faced the Steelers in the Super Bowl was with Barry Switzer leading the team. Switzer was in his second year in Dallas, and having been bounced from the NFC championship game by the 49ers the year before, there were questions about his place in Dallas. The Cowboys responded by going 12-4 and knocking out both the Eagles and Packers in the playoffs to reach the title game. The Steelers were 11-5 that season under fourth-year head coach Bill Cowher. After beating the Bills and Colts, the Steelers reached the Super Bowl for the first time in sixteen seasons, marking a return to glory for the franchise.

But the Cowboys weren’t about to just let them win. They jumped out to a 13-0 lead before Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell threw a touchdown just in time to score before halftime, making it 13-7. O’Donnell wouldn’t throw another touchdown in the game, though, and actually ended the day with three picks. Pittsburgh only scored ten more points in the game, while Emmitt Smith’s two rushing touchdowns helped seal the 27-17 victory for the Cowboys. It marked the franchise’s third Super Bowl victory in the last four years, but as we all know, it was the beginning of the end for the 90’s Cowboys dynasty.

Switzer would be fired two seasons later, ushering in a period of unrest for the Cowboys as their roster experienced significant turnover. Not only have the Cowboys not won a Super Bowl since that season, they haven’t even appeared in the NFC championship game since then. That win over the Steelers was the last moment of greatness for the franchise.

Now, the Cowboys will try their luck with either Garrett Gilbert or Cooper Rush against the 7-0 Steelers in a season that’s already over for Dallas. These two teams may not be meeting in the Super Bowl this year, but it doesn’t negate all the history they have between them.

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