Cowboys-49ers rivalry set for record-tying 9th playoff game

Jan 18, 2023, 1:00 PM | Updated: Jan 19, 2023, 3:36 am
FILE - Dallas Cowboys defender Deion Sanders (21) knocks the ball away from San Francisco 49ers rec...

FILE - Dallas Cowboys defender Deion Sanders (21) knocks the ball away from San Francisco 49ers receiver Jerry Rice (80) in the second quarter of an NFL football game in Irving, Texas, Nov. 12, 1995. The 49ers-Cowboys playoff history is a rich one from back-to-back conference title games in the early 1970s, the iconic “Catch” in the 1981 season and then the heated rivalry in the 1990s when the Cowboys won the first two meetings on the way to Super Bowl titles and then the Niners took the third game. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

(AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — For Kyle Shanahan, the chance to coach the San Francisco 49ers against the Dallas Cowboys in a playoff game is a throwback to when that rivalry was the biggest in football.

Shanahan’s formative years were spent watching his father, Mike, as offensive coordinator in San Francisco battling the Cowboys in three straight NFC title games.

After the rivalry went dormant for more than a quarter-century as the proud franchises rarely enjoyed success at the same time, it is having a rebirth with San Francisco set to take on Dallas for the second straight postseason when they meet Sunday in the divisional round.

“That’s how rivalries happen,” Shanahan said Wednesday. “You guys knew it from the ’80s when it started out. I remember so much from my childhood from sixth grade to ninth grade, because I was here ’92 to ’94, so it was the biggest rivalry in football to me growing up. Then usually that goes away when you don’t meet in the playoffs a bunch and we had a big game last year, we have a big game this year, so the more you do that, the bigger it gets again.”

This will be the ninth time these franchises have met in the postseason, tied for the most of any matchup in the Super Bowl era with San Francisco against Green Bay and Dallas against the Rams.

But with six of the previous matchups coming in the conference title game, few rivalries have had as many big games or star players such as Roger Staubach, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Deion Sanders, Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin.

The 49ers-Cowboys playoff history is a rich one from back-to-back conference title games in the early 1970s, the iconic “Catch” in the 1981 season and then the heated rivalry in the 1990s when the Cowboys won the first two meetings on the way to Super Bowl titles and then the Niners took the third game.

“None of us were around for that,” Niners fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “So the rivalry is really what we’ve done recently. We played them last year in the playoffs. I think that is more of our fuel as opposed to those other games.”

The series took a long playoff break before resuming in the wild-card round last year when the 49ers held off the Cowboys 23-17. The game ended in dramatic fashion with Dak Prescott scrambling to the San Francisco 24 in the closing seconds.

Dallas scrambled to get to the line and waited for the officials to set the ball. Prescott then spiked the ball in hopes of getting one more play off but the clock ran out.

Here’s a look at the history of the playoff rivalry.


The teams squared off in the first three years after the merger with the Cowboys beating the Niners for the NFC title game in 1970 and ’71 and again the next year to help launch their status as “America’s Team.”

In the first meeting at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, Dallas used 143 yards rushing and a TD from Duane Thomas and two interceptions of John Brodie to win 17-10.

Dallas’ defense dominated again the next year with three more interceptions of Brodie in a 14-3 win that led the Cowboys to their first Super Bowl title.

The next meeting in the divisional round at Candlestick Park helped Staubach earn the moniker of “Captain Comeback.”

Staubach entered the game in the fourth quarter with Dallas down 28-13 and led the team on three scoring drives. He threw a 20-yard TD pass to Billy Parks with 1:20 left to cut the deficit to 28-23. After a successful onside kick, the Cowboys won it on a 10-yard TD pass from Staubach to Ron Sellers with 52 seconds left.


The Niners fell off after that three-year run, but got their revenge with a late-game comeback of their own to launch a dynasty in the 1981 NFC championship game.

San Francisco took over at its 11 with 4:54 to play trailing 27-21 when Montana took over. He picked apart Dallas’ Doomsday Defense with a quintessential West Coast offense drive.

Then the Niners faced a third-and-4 at the Dallas 6 with less than a minute to play when Bill Walsh called “Sprint Right Option.” Montana rolled right and couldn’t find an open receiver immediately. Then with Ed “Too Tall” Jones and the Dallas defense closing in, Montana launched a high pass that seemed headed out of the end zone.

But Dwight Clark leaped over Everson Walls in the back of the end zone and came down with “The Catch” to give San Francisco a 28-27 lead.

The win was sealed when Danny White lost a fumble and San Francisco won its first of five Super Bowl titles in a 14-year span two weeks later.

“Start of a dynasty,” former 49ers president Carmen Policy said. “I don’t let myself go down the road of what would have happened if he doesn’t make that catch.”


While the Niners dynasty was launched with that win, it was the start of Dallas’ demise under coach Tom Landry. The Cowboys bottomed out with a one-win season in Jimmy Johnson’s first year in 1989 before beginning a steady rise.

That helped lead to the Cowboys making it to the 1992 NFC title game in San Francisco against a stacked Niners team led by Steve Young and Jerry Rice.

But the young Cowboys didn’t flinch, getting two TDs from Smith to build a 24-20 lead and then Aikman helped seal it with a 70-yard pass to Alvin Harper to set up another TD.

The rematch the next season wasn’t nearly as tight with the Cowboys building a 28-7 halftime lead on the way to a 38-21 win after Johnson guaranteed victory earlier in the week. Johnson punctuated both wins with his “How ’bout them Cowboys!” proclamation in the victorious locker room.

“I’ve been talking all week,” Johnson told his team. “If you’re gonna talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk. Thanks to you guys, y’all did the walkin.”


After those two losses raised questions if Young would ever win the “big one,” the game the next year helped establish him as one of the greats.

Eric Davis got it started with a pick-6 on the opening possession. Two more turnovers helped San Francisco break out to a 21-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.

“Spotting them a 21-point lead was like spotting Carl Lewis 20 yards in a 100-yard dash,” Smith said.

Young did the rest with two TD passes and a TD run and went on to win Super Bowl MVP two weeks later.

“To answer that pressure is one of the great feelings in sports,” he said after that win over Dallas.


AP Pro Football Writer Schuyler Dixon contributed to this report


AP NFL: and

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


United States' Mikaela Shiffrin speeds down the course during an alpine ski, women's World Cup slal...
Associated Press

Shiffrin beaten in slalom, has to wait for record 86th win

SPINDLERUV MLYN, Czech Republic (AP) — Mikaela Shiffrin will have to wait for at least five more weeks before tying the World Cup record for most career wins with 86. The American skier finished second in a slalom Sunday and remained one victory short of Ingemar Stenmark’s total on the all-time overall winners list – […]
1 day ago
Novak Djokovic of Serbia, left, shakes hands with Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece after Djokovic won t...
Associated Press

Djokovic beats Tsitsipas for 10th Australian Open, 22nd Slam

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Novak Djokovic found this trip to Australia far less complicated, and far more successful, than that of a year ago. Unable to enter his best event in 2022 after being deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19, Djokovic accomplished all he could have wanted in his return: […]
1 day ago
Arizona Coyotes defenseman Troy Stecher, left, taunts Anaheim Ducks center Trevor Zegras after Zebr...
Associated Press

Zegras scores in OT, Ducks beat Coyotes for 3rd win a row

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Trevor Zegras scored at 3:34 of overtime and the Anaheim Ducks beat the Arizona Coyotes 2-1 on Saturday night for their first three-game winning streak of the season. John Klingberg stole the puck from Matias Maccelli in the offensive zone and found Zegras in the slot for a wrist shot for […]
1 day ago
Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) and Cody Ceci (5) celebrate a goal against the Chicago Blackha...
Associated Press

Oilers head into All-Star break with win over Blackhawks

EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Tyson Barrie scored twice, Connor McDavid had his NHL-best 41st goal and the Edmonton Oilers headed into their All-Star break with a 7-3 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night. McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Zach Hyman each had a goal and two assists, and Evander Kane and Ryan McLeod also […]
1 day ago
Seattle Kraken center Ryan Donato, rear, watches as the puck rests behind Columbus Blue Jackets goa...
Associated Press

Wennberg scores against former team, Kraken top Blue Jackets

SEATTLE (AP) — Alex Wennberg scored midway through the second period against his former team to help the Seattle Kraken beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-1 on Saturday night. Wennberg, who was drafted by the Blue Jackets in the first round in 2013, had his 10th goal of the season in his 600th career game. […]
1 day ago
Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam drives to the basket past Portland Trail Blazers forward Jera...
Associated Press

Achiuwa leads Raptors to 123-105 win over Trail Blazers

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Precious Achiuwa scored 27 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in place of the injured OG Anunoby to lead the Toronto Raptors to a 123-105 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night. Pascal Siakam scored 24 points and Gary Trent Jr. added 19 against his former team for the Raptors, […]
1 day ago
Cowboys-49ers rivalry set for record-tying 9th playoff game