The two familiar foes have met a total of 37 times, with the Cowboys possessing a thin lead on the series, 19-17-1. Dallas won the last meeting 41-33 in Week 15 of the 2020 season.
Both coaching staffs are well-versed in the longtime rivalry.
San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan shared his own memories from when his father, Mike Shanahan, served as the 49ers’ offensive coordinator and quarterback coach from 1992 to ’94 — when the teams met in three consecutive NFC Championship Games.
“Those are part of my childhood. That was such cool football because everyone knew that for those three NFC championships, those three years were the Super Bowl.”
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy is also familiar with the rivalry. He served as the Niners’ offensive coordinator in 2005 and suffered a 34-31 loss to Dallas in Week 3. He named “The Catch” as his first recollection of the rivalry.
“Great tradition, great games, but more importantly these games always mean something, and that’s no different this year,” McCarthy said. “So you’re always playing for more and it’s a privilege to be a part of this tradition.”
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was an assistant in San Francisco from 2000 to ’04 and is looking forward to the matchup
“There’s a new heightened sense of things that happen in the playoffs. All the teams are good, they usually come down right to the end. … I’m fired up and ready to go.”
Here are some of the top moments that made 49ers-Cowboys one of the greatest non-division rivalries in NFL history, selected by NFL Nation reporters Nick Wagoner and Todd Archer.
Introducing “Captain Comeback”
A separated shoulder kept Cowboys QB Roger Staubach sidelined for most of the 1972 season, but he solidified his status as “Captain Comeback” in the fourth quarter of the divisional round.
Craig Morton started the game at quarterback for Dallas but threw two interceptions and lost a fumble as San Francisco mounted a 21-6 lead in the second quarter.
“They were laughing at us. Making fun of us during the game,” said Dallas safety Charlie Waters. “They were really enjoying having the upper hand on us. They didn’t think there was any way [we’d come back] — because our offense was sputtering. We were doing absolutely nothing.”
The Cowboys’ offense was held scoreless in the third quarter, and coach Tom Landry made a QB change in the fourth.
Staubach fumbled the ball on his first possession but made up for his misstep by leading Dallas to a miraculous comeback. He threw two touchdown passes in the final two minutes, finding Billy Parks and Ron Sellers, and that gave Dallas a 30-28 lead.
Waters sealed the game by picking off 49ers QB John Brodie.
Joe Montana and Co. found themselves trailing the Cowboys 27-21 with less than five minutes remaining in the 1981 NFC Championship Game.
But Montana and Dwight Clark made magic happen on third down.
Montana evaded three defenders, rolled to his right and delivered the ball in the back of the end zone where Clark made the winning grab with 51 seconds remaining in regulation.
The play nearly didn’t happen, though.
“I was thinking of throwing the ball away,” Montana said after the game. “But I saw him come open and I figured if I could hang on another half-second …”
“How ’bout them Cowboys?”
After finishing the regular season 13-3, Dallas steamrollered their NFC East rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles, 34-10 in the divisional round, stamping their ticket to meet the 49ers in the 1992 NFC championship.
Meanwhile, San Francisco finished the season 14-2 and came out on top in a tough divisional-round matchup against Washington. Moreover, after winning four Super Bowls with Joe Montana throughout the 1980s, the team looked to continue that stretch with Steve Young as its signal-caller.
Both squads were chock full of offensive talent with Young and Jerry Rice on one side, and Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin on the other.
Despite that, a low-scoring back-and-forth battle ensued in the first half, and the two were tied at 10 at halftime.
In the second half, Dallas scored three of the game’s final four touchdowns, which was enough to secure the victory and a Super Bowl XXVII appearance.
But before going to face the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl, Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson had something to say:
“How ’bout them Cowboys?”
And just like that, a phrase that has transcended generations of Dallas fans was born.
“We will win the ballgame, put it in 3-inch headlines”
In 1993, Johnson delivered another memorable phrase that has stood the test of time.
Before the two met for a second consecutive NFC Championship, Johnson called a local sports radio show and made an unprecedented declaration.
“We will win the ballgame,” Johnson stated. “You can put that in three-inch high headlines.”
Well, he wasn’t wrong.
Bolstered by a three-touchdown second quarter, Dallas dominated San Francisco 38-21 to advance to Super Bowl XXVIII.
Niners get their revenge
The Niners and Cowboys met for the NFC title for the third straight time, with both quarterbacks having opposing circumstances. Aikman entered with a 7-0 record as a starter in the playoffs, while Young had yet to get over the hump, and into the Super Bowl.
However, in 1994, the pendulum finally swung in favor of the 49ers.
Aikman threw a pick-six to Eric Davis on the first drive. Then Irvin fumbled on Dallas’ next possession, and Young took advantage of the ideal field position by connecting with Ricky Watters for a 29-yard touchdown. The Cowboys’ had another costly early turnover on the next drive when Kevin Williams fumbled the kickoff and San Francisco capitalized with a touchdown.
And just like that, the 49ers led 21-0 with over seven minutes left in the first quarter.
Still, Dallas put up a fight, recording 451 total yards of offense, compared to San Francisco’s 294, but couldn’t overcome five turnovers.
The 38-28 victory allowed Young to make his first Super Bowl appearance as the Niners’ starting quarterback.
Dallas wins “Deion Sweepstakes”
Entering the 1995 offseason, reigning Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl XXIX champion Deion Sanders was riding high after the best season of his career. However, his one-year deal with San Francisco was up and it was time to find his next home.
In Week 2, Dallas ended up signing Sanders to a seven-year, $35 million contract, which made him the NFL’s highest paid defensive player at the time.
Due to a surgery, Sanders was unable to make his debut for America’s Team until Week 9, but he made an immediate impact and went on to be a part of his second Super Bowl-winning squad in just as many years.
T.O.’s star-studded celebration
Terrell Owens’ legacy is highlighted by signature celebrations and unforgettable moments, and on Sept. 24, 2000, a star was born.
After making a 3-yard touchdown reception, Owens ran to midfield and spread his arms on the Cowboys’ logo. Nearly a minute later, longtime Dallas running back Emmitt Smith scored a touchdown of his own and responded by returning to the star to copy Owens. Later on, T.O. hauled in another touchdown and headed back to the center of the field in Texas Stadium, but Cowboys’ safety George Teague met him at the star and delivered a big hit.
On a 2016 episode of ESPN’s Mike & Mike radio show, Owens defended his decision to stand on the star.
“It had nothing to do with me trying to taunt my opponent, had nothing to do with me trying to taunt the Cowboys. … My coach was like, ‘Yo’ — he motivated me [to do this] — ‘This is what this is about. Go to the star, give your thanks to God, because he’s watching down on this game, and show him who’s the best player today.’ And that’s what I did.”
Tony Romo rallies past Niners in OT
In Week 2 of the 2011 season, Tony Romo managed to lead Dallas to an unlikely comeback win.
Romo took several hits in the first half, including one off of a blindside blitz that left him visibly in pain. He missed all but the last series in the third quarter, and his injuries were later revealed to be a broken rib and punctured lung. He would return in the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys trailed by as many as 10 points in the fourth quarter, but the tide quickly changed.
Romo completed 5 of 6 passes on the drive that sent the game to overtime. His 77-yard pass to Jesse Holley set up the winning field goal. Romo connected on 20 of 33 passes for 345 yards and two touchdowns, with over 200 yards coming in the fourth quarter and OT.