January 10, 1982, is the day it all started. Most longtime Niners and Cowboys fans will point to this day as the start of a rivalry that lasted the better part of two decades. The 1981 NFC championship game at Candlestick Park between the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys was the beginning of an era and, in many ways, signified the demise of another.
That 1981-82 NFC championship game, which San Francisco won 28-27, is also known as “The Catch” game for Joe Montana’s game-winning TD pass to Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone. It was 3rd-and-3 for Montana and the 49ers, on the Cowboys’ six-yard-line with 58-seconds left in regulation. Upon the snap, Montana rolled right, just about running out of bounds with multiple Dallas defenders bearing down on him before launching the ball toward the end line of the endzone. Then Clark, like a thief in the night, came leaping from out of nowhere for the catch, cementing San Francisco’s first NFC championship victory and Super Bowl appearance.
If you grew up in the Bay Area in the 1980s and ’90s, whether you’re a Niners fan or not, you’ve seen that play more times than you can remember. The 49ers went on to win their first Super Bowl that season, then another three before the end of the ’80s. San Francisco had stolen the NFC crown from Dallas and then dominated the 80s with honorable mention to the New York Giants, Washington (you know), and the Chicago Bears. Washington won two while the Giants and Bears took one Lombardi trophy home apiece during the decade.
For Dallas, the demoralizing loss in the closing seconds of that championship game really signified the end of a dynasty. The Cowboys did make it back to the NFC championship the following year, but only nine games were played that regular season (‘82-83), so for some, there’s an asterisk next to that season for everybody. Dallas wouldn’t make it back to the NFC title game until the 1992-93 season, where they’d face off against the 49ers. The Cowboys and Niners played in three consecutive NFC championship games from 1992-95. The winner went on to win all three of those Super Bowls.
Another aspect of this rivalry that really intensified things in the ’90s was the number of prominent players that flip-flopped from one side to the other in the midst of all the bad blood. After winning two rings with the 49ers in the 80s, outside rusher Charles Haley was the first big-name player to leave for Dallas after the ’91-92 season, seemingly shifting the balance of power in the NFC. Haley helped the Cowboys win back-to-back Super Bowls in his first two years on the team.
In ‘94, Ken Norton Jr. left Dallas for SF, and the Niners beat the Cowboys in the NFC title game en route to winning Super Bowl number five. But an even more significant acquisition that year for the Niners was the signing of Deion Sanders. San Francisco had no answer for Cowboys star receiver Michael Irvin in the previous two years. Irvin had repeatedly roasted Niners defensive backs, and so they went out and hired a mercenary to deal with Irvin. But the following year, for reasons that still aren’t completely clear, San Francisco allowed Sanders to become a free agent. So, of course, Jerry Jones being the opportunist he’s always been, swooped right in and signed Prime Time to a seven-year, $35-million contract. At the time, it was unheard of for a cornerback to ink such a lucrative deal. Allow me to put this in perspective for anyone under the age of 30. This move was about as impactful to the league as Kevin Durant joining the Golden State Warriors in 2016. That’s not hyperbole, it’s a fact. Deion going to Dallas shifted the spotlight and power dynamic back to Big D.
Eventually, as we got through that middle part of the 90s, the Green Bay Packers would sneak into the NFC mix as the Cowboys and 49ers faded into the background. Everyone knew that the NFC would go through either Dallas or San Francisco for nearly half a decade. At that time, the NFC championship game was seen as the “real” Super Bowl. Even going back to the 80s, it was almost two decades where the NFC not only won the Super Bowl but usually blew out their AFC opponent no matter who they faced.
This Cowboys-Niners wildcard game Sunday is crucial for so many reasons. Not just because the winner moves one step closer to the ultimate prize, but it’s also the first time these franchises will square off in the postseason in about a quarter century. This game is important to generations of Cowboys and Niners fans not just in the Bay Area and Dallas but also across the country. I’m sure this game will pull the highest rating of the weekend. There’s too much history involved with this game no to. I just hope we get a great battle like so many of those games played back in the day.