SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — For Kyle Shanahan, the chance to coach the San Francisco 49ers in a playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys is a reminder of when that rivalry was at its greatest in football.
Shanahan’s formative years were spent watching his father, Mike, as offensive coordinator in San Francisco, battle the Cowboys in three NFC straight title games.
After lying dormant for more than a quarter-century as the proud franchises seldom thrived simultaneously, the rivalry is experiencing a rebirth as San Francisco will take on Dallas for the second straight year when they clash in the divisional round on Sunday.
“That’s how rivalries arise,” Shanahan said on Wednesday. “You know it from the 80s when it started. I remember so much from my childhood from sixth to ninth grade because I was here from ’92 to ’94 so it was the biggest rivalry in football for me growing up. Then that usually goes away when you don’t get together a lot in the playoffs and we had a big game last year, we have a big game this year so the more times you do that the bigger it gets again.
This marks the ninth time these franchises have met in the postseason, with most of the Super Bowl-era matchups having been played with San Francisco versus Green Bay and Dallas versus the Rams.
But with six of the previous matchups in the conference title game, few rivals have had as many big games or star players as Roger Staubach, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Deion Sanders, Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin.
49ers-Cowboys playoff history is rich with back-to-back conference title games in the early 1970s, the legendary “catch” in the 1981 season, and then heated rivalry in the 1990s, as the Cowboys won their first two encounters on their way to the Super Bowl title and then the Niners took the third game.
“None of us were there for that,” said Niner’s full-back Kyle Juszczyk. “So the rivalry is really what we’ve been doing lately. We played them in the playoffs last year. I think that’s more our fuel than these other games.”
The series went on a lengthy playoff hiatus before resuming in the wildcard round last year when the 49ers defeated the Cowboys 23-17. The game ended in dramatic fashion as Dak Prescott climbed to the San Francisco 24 in the closing seconds.
Robert ran to the line and waited for the officials to set the ball. Prescott then spiked the ball hoping to get another playoff, but the clock ran out.
Here’s a look at the history of the playoff rivalry.
The teams feuded with the Niners for the first three years after merging with the Cowboys to beat the NFC title game in 1970 and 1971 and again the next year to establish their status as “America’s Team.”
In the first meeting at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium, Dallas used 143 yards rushing and a TD from Duane Thomas and two interceptions from John Brodie to win 17-10.
The Dallas defense continued to dominate the next year, with three more interceptions from Brodie in a 14-3 win that led the Cowboys to their first Super Bowl title.
The next divisional round meeting at Candlestick Park earned Staubach the nickname “Captain Comeback”.
Staubach came on in the fourth quarter with Dallas 28-13 behind and led the team in three goals. He threw a 20-yard TD pass to Billy Parks with 1:20 left to reduce the deficit to 28-23. After a successful onside kick, the Cowboys won by 52 seconds with a 10-yard TD pass from Staubach to Ron Sellers.
The Niners fell off after that three-year run but retaliated with a late-game comeback of their own to start a dynasty in the 1981 NFC Championship game.
San Francisco took over 4:54 on their 11 and was trailing 27-21 when Montana took over. He smashed Dallas Doomsday Defense with a typical West Coast attack drive.
Then the Niners were facing a third and fourth place finish with less than a minute of play at the Dallas 6 when Bill Walsh yelled “Sprint Right Option.” Montana rolled to the right and couldn’t immediately find an open receiver. Then, as Ed “Too Tall” Jones and the Dallas defense closed in, Montana launched a high pass that seemed to go out of the end zone.
But Dwight Clark vaulted over Everson Walls back in the endzone and came down with The Catch to put San Francisco 28-27 ahead.
Victory was sealed when Danny White lost a fumble and two weeks later San Francisco won its first of five Super Bowl titles in 14 years.
“The beginning of a dynasty,” said Carmen Policy, former president of the 49ers. “I won’t be put off by what would have happened if he hadn’t made that catch.”
HOW ABOUT YOU COWBOYS
While the Niners dynasty was launched with that win, it marked the beginning of Dallas’ decline under coach Tom Landry. The Cowboys hit rock bottom in 1989, Jimmy Johnson’s freshman year, with a one-win season before beginning a steady climb.
This helped the Cowboys make 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, grabbing 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 next season wasn’t nearly as close, as the Cowboys built a 28-7 halftime lead en route to a 38-21 win after Johnson guaranteed the win earlier in the week. Johnson punctuated both victories with his “How ’bout them Cowboys!” proclamation in the victorious dressing room.
“I’ve been talking all week,” Johnson told his team. “If you want to talk, you have to walk down the aisle. Thanks to you, you all made it.”
After those two losses raised questions about whether Young would ever win the “big one,” the next year’s game helped establish him as one of the all-time greats.
Eric Davis started with a pick-6 on the opening ball. Two more turnovers helped San Francisco take a 21-0 lead in less than five minutes.
“Seeing them with a 21-point lead was like seeing Carl Lewis in a 100-yard dash from 20 yards,” Smith said.
Young did the rest with two TD passes and a TD run and won the Super Bowl MVP two weeks later.
“Responding to that pressure is one of the great feelings in sport,” he said after beating Dallas.
AP Pro Football Writer Schuyler Dixon contributed to this report
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