NFL

Cowboys, 49ers renew arguably best playoff rivalry

Monday marked the 40th anniversary of “The Catch,” an iconic moment in both the Cowboys-49ers rivalry and NFL lore that launched the Joe Montana-led San Francisco dynasty of the 1980s as Tom Landry’s storied Dallas tenure entered its twilight.

Thirteen years later, the 49ers and Cowboys would meet again for the NFC championship after the 1994 season, this time with one of the greatest collections of talent on a single field in NFL history. The 49ers arrived armed with 10 Pro Bowlers, featuring future Hall of Famers Steve Young and Jerry Rice on offense with Deion Sanders roaming the secondary.

The Cowboys countered with 11 Pro Bowlers, including Hall of Fame “Triplets” Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin and former 49ers pass-rushing menace Charles Haley. As they did after the 1981 season, the 49ers emerged victorious that day en route to waxing the San Diego Chargers for the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl championship. 

That title game marked the seventh playoff meeting between the two franchises. Six of those meetings took place in the NFC championship game, including three straight after the 1992-94 seasons with the Cowboys winning the first two en route to their own Super Bowl titles. The Cowboys also won three straight matchups from 1970-72. The winner of their seven playoff matchups went on to win the Super Bowl five times.

1994 was also the last time the two storied franchises met in the postseason. Until Sunday, that is.

Steve Young (8) made his mark on the Cowboys-49ers rivalry with a victory in the NFC championship game following the 1994 season, and ultimately a Super Bowl XXVIX title. (John Mabanglo/AFP via Getty Images)

After a 26-year postseason hiatus, the Cowboys and 49ers will meet on Sunday in what’s arguably the marquee matchup of the weekend’s wild-card slate. It will feature a large combination of players either not old enough to remember or not even born in time to witness those great matchups of the early ’90s. Take Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. He was born in 1993.

But 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan remembers. He was in middle school when his dad Mike Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for those 49ers teams from 1992-94. Now he’s ready to put his own stamp on the rivalry.

“Oh, I think that’s as cool as it gets,” Shanahan told reporters on Monday. “That’s the coolest part of my childhood growing up I feel like. My senior year in high school, my dad was with the Broncos and they were able to beat the Packers in the Super Bowl, which was unbelievable.

“But before that, it was seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade — ’92, ’93, ’94. Every single year I thought we were the best team in the league.”

The winner of Sunday’s game will stay alive to bring home a sixth Lombardi trophy — each franchise already claims five. Both teams will make their mark on what’s arguably the greatest postseason rivalry in NFL history. But is that a claim it can still make after so many years off? Was it ever theirs to claim in the first place?

Is Cowboys-49ers the greatest playoff rivalry in NFL history?

The Super Bowl era offers more than its fair share of contenders. The New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts clashed five times in the playoffs during the Tom Brady era. Three of those matchups came against Peyton Manning with a pair against Andrew Luck. They played some classic games with the winner going on to win four Super Bowls. Three, of course, belonged to the Patriots, with Peyton Manning’s Colts winning a Super Bowl after the 2006 season. 

But that’s the problem with the Brady era when comparing rivalries. It’s a lopsided affair, with different franchises taking turns playing foil. Take the Baltimore Ravens. They faced off with the Patriots four times from 2009-14. The Ravens won twice, including the 2012 AFC championship en route to the franchise’s second Super Bowl win.

What about Eli Manning’s New York Giants? They carved out a singular role in playoff history, posting a 2-0 record against Brady’s Patriots in the Super Bowl, with the first win in Super Bowl XLII coming as a significant underdog. Brady’s Patriots, meanwhile, split a pair of Super Bowls against two different eras of Philadelphia Eagles teams. 

Back to the NFC, and the 49ers aren’t even the Cowboys’ most frequent playoff opponent. From 1973-2018, the Cowboys and Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams faced off an NFL-record nine times in the playoffs. The 49ers counter with eight postseason matchups against the New York Giants, with six of them arriving amid the shared dominance of the 49ers and the NFC East during the ’80s and early ’90s. 

The Green Bay Packers, meanwhile, have faced off eight times each against the Cowboys and 49ers, speaking to the sustained greatness of the conference’s most successful franchises. In the AFC, the Steelers and Raiders have played some of the football’s biggest games across six postseason matchups, with three taking place in the conference championship. The Steelers also have eight playoff matchups against the Denver Broncos. 

But none of those rivalries have involved as many high-stakes games as Cowboys-49ers, whose six conference championship clashes are twice as many as any other matchup. And while Sunday’s game won’t lay claim to those stakes, it’ll be nice to have the rivalry back in any form. 


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