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Know your history: The Cowboys at Chargers matchup

The Cowboys and Chargers don’t play often, but it’s usually a good game.

San Diego Chargers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

After narrowly losing to the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay on Thursday, the Cowboys earned a mini-bye before they travel all the way to the other side of the country to face the Los Angeles Chargers. When they take the field on Sunday, it’ll be just the 12th time in NFL history these two teams have faced each other, and the Cowboys will be trying to snap a three-game losing streak to the Chargers.

The first time the Cowboys played the Chargers came in November of 1972. Dallas had just won their first Super Bowl the year before, and were traveling to San Diego to face the Chargers, who were in their third season as a franchise. Coincidentally, that Chargers team had just acquired Cowboys running back Duane Thomas in the offseason. Thomas was a key part of the Cowboys’ Super Bowl victory and reportedly was going to be the Super Bowl MVP, but his unpredictable personality led to Roger Staubach being given the trophy for fear of what Thomas might say in the interview.

Tensions between Thomas and the Cowboys played a part in his trade to the Chargers that offseason. San Diego thought they were getting a star to help their young upstart team, but Thomas was suspended after failing to show up at the start of the season. He ultimately never played in the 1972 season, and San Diego traded him to Washington a year later.

That wasn’t the only noteworthy thing about the otherwise unremarkable 1972 Chargers. In addition to trading for Thomas, they also acquired two Hall of Famers at the end of their careers in tight end John Mackey and pass rusher Deacon Jones. Neither worked out very well for San Diego, although they did play the Cowboys very closely before losing 34-28.

The Cowboys’ next three games against the Chargers came at one of the high points of the San Diego franchise’s history: the head coach/quarterback duo of Don Coryell and Dan Fouts. As one of the first head coaches to understand how valuable passing the ball is, Coryell’s offenses routinely lit up defenses left and right, so getting to see a Coryell offense go up against a Tom Landry defense was must-watch TV.

The first such game came in 1980, and the high flying Chargers had just dropped 44 points on the Giants the week prior to reach a record of 5-2. Early on, Coryell was winning the war easily, with San Diego holding a 24-14 lead at halftime. But the Cowboys offense came roaring to life and scored 28 unanswered points out of the halftime break - two rushing touchdowns from Timmy Newsome and two touchdown passes from Danny White. Landry’s Doomsday Defense also picked off Fouts four times, securing the 42-31 victory.

Their next game against each, in 1983, other started out in similar fashion. The Chargers scored off of a blocked punt in the first quarter, and that started a string of points for San Diego. The Cowboys trailed 24-6 at one point in the third quarter, but White threw two touchdowns and led a drive that ended in a field goal to make things close. In the end, Dallas ran out of time to complete the comeback, losing 24-23.

The next game came in 1986, just three weeks after Coryell had been fired after a 1-7 start to the season. The Chargers won their first game under interim head coach Al Saunders the week prior, and played very well against Dallas. Fouts threw two touchdowns and Tim Spencer ran in another, but the Cowboys just outmatched them, with Herschel Walker and Steve Pelluer both running in touchdowns late in the fourth quarter to give the Cowboys a 24-21 victory.

While the Cowboys have historically beaten the Chargers, albeit in very close games, things have taken a turn as of late. In 2009, the 8-4 Cowboys hosted the 9-3 Chargers, winners of their last seven games, in what some billed as a potential Super Bowl matchup. It was a close game that saw both Tony Romo and Philip Rivers go toe-to-toe with each other, but the Chargers edged out a 20-17 win.

Then, in 2013, the 2-1 Cowboys traveled to San Diego to take on the 1-2 Chargers, who were in their first season under head coach Mike McCoy. The Cowboys dominated for most of the first half, which included a 52-yard pick six for Sean Lee, and led 21-13 at halftime. The Chargers went on to score 17 second-half points while shutting out the Cowboys completely for the 30-21 win.

The last time these two teams played happens to be the one game Dak Prescott faced the Chargers, although it was at the lowest point in his career. It was just the third game since Ezekiel Elliott was out serving his suspension, and the Cowboys had scored exactly one touchdown in the prior two games. Taking place on Thanksgiving, the Cowboys continued their string of offensive ineptitude. Rod Smith ran in for a touchdown, but Dak was intercepted twice and struggled to get comfortable against the pass rushing duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Rivers, meanwhile, tossed three touchdowns to score a big 28-6 win.

The good news for Dallas is that Prescott is light years ahead of the player he was back in 2017, and he has an offensive coordinator capable of producing with or without Ezekiel Elliott rushing for big gains every play, as Dallas proved Thursday. The Chargers, however, have their own star in the making in reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert. Dallas leads the all-time series 6-5, so a Chargers win would tie things up while also extending the Cowboys’ losing streak in this matchup. It would also lead to a 0-2 record, which greatly decreases a team’s playoff odds. It feels a little early in the season to label something as “must win,” but the Cowboys would feel much better if they snap the streak on Sunday.