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Ranking every Cowboys vs. 49ers NFL playoff game from 1-8: NFC rivals set for ninth postseason clash in 2023

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There are certain matches in sports that evoke memories of epic matches that defined championships and legacies. On Sunday, the 49ers and Cowboys will resume a postseason rivalry that dates back to the Cowboys’ first Super Bowl more than half a century ago. The 49ers dynasty also began by beating the Cowboys in one of the greatest games ever played. The rivalry peaked in the 1990s, when the two teams were vying for league dominance.

You can’t write NFL history without a chapter on the 49ers-Cowboys rivalry. The two teams have met in the playoffs eight times, with the winner lifting the Lombardi Trophy five times. The Cowboys currently have a 5-3 lead. Along with championships, the games have defined the careers of legendary players and coaches, including Tom Landry, Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Jerry Rice, Michael Irwin, Steve Young and Emmitt Smith.

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We’re ranking eight 49ers-Cowboys playoff games below as we look forward to the ninth meeting between the two legendary franchises in Sunday’s divisional playoff game.

8. 1971 NFC Championship Game: Cowboys 14, 49ers 3

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The Cowboys’ first postseason run included a low-scoring victory over the 49ers. The difference in the Dallas game and three forced losses was this. Led by quarterback Roger Staubach with 55 yards, the Cowboys’ offense gained 172 yards and landed twice on the ground.

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Dwayne Thomas, who had been tight-lipped to the media and his teammates all season, scored the game-tying goal in the fourth quarter to seal the Cowboys’ second consecutive Super Bowl spot. The Dallas Doomsday Defense defeated John Brodie’s QB 49ers Pro Bowl three times. The 49ers defense was led by Cedric Hardman, who fired Staubach 3.5 times.

7. 1970 NFC Championship Game: Cowboys 17, 49ers 10

The first playoff showdown between the two teams was for Super Bowl V. Although Brody threw for 160 more yards than teammate Craig Morton, his two interceptions helped the 49ers lose in front of their fans. The Cowboys’ offense was led by Thomas, whose 143 yards included a 13-yard touchdown.

Trailing 17-3, the 49ers came close to one score but lost with two minutes left. It was Morton’s last playoff win in the Cowboys’ uniform, who was benched for Staubach in the 1971 season.

6. Wild Card 2021: 49ers 23, Cowboys 17

Despite the close game, the fact that it didn’t happen deeper into the playoffs is the reason she’s lower on the list. San Francisco dominated the game for most of the day before the Cowboys closed in with two goals in the fourth quarter.

Dallas had a chance to complete the comeback after returning the ball to their 20-yard line with 32 seconds left. Three completions allowed the Cowboys to go past midfield, but Dallas ran out of time after Duck Prescott ran for 17 yards. Prescott hit the ball in an attempt to stop the clock when time was up.

The 49ers defense fired Prescott five times in the win, while Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel hit the Cowboys defense for 168 yards on 37 carries.

5. 1993 NFC Championship Game: Cowboys 38, 49ers 21

Jimmie Johnson was on his way to dinner when he overheard a local radio station debating whether his Cowboys could win a second straight NFC title game over San Francisco. Instead of listening to the debate, Johnson decided to weigh himself.

“We will win the ball game,” Johnson said live. “And you can put it in three-inch headlines. We will win the ball game.”

After his quotes made national headlines, the players assured Johnson that they would cash his check. The outcome was never in doubt as Dallas took a 28–7 lead in front of hometown fans. Even the early exit of Aikman (who was hospitalized with a concussion) didn’t stop the Cowboys, who froze the game thanks to a third-quarter touchdown pass from Bernie Kosar to Alvin Harper.

The Cowboys’ offense was led by Smith, the league’s MVP that season. Smith hit two touchdowns for almost as many receiving yards (85) as he did rushing yards (88). The Dallas defense locked up Young’s four sacks, keeping Rice 83 yards away on six receptions. The Cowboys successfully defended their title after defeating the Bills in Super Bowl XXVIII.

4. Divisional Round 1972: Cowboys 30, 49ers 28

Dallas had defeated San Francisco in the previous two NFC Championship games. But in 1972, the 49ers crushed the Cowboys in the regular season and held a 28–13 lead through three-quarters of the divisional round. However, the fourth quarter was dominated by Staubach, who set up three scoring shots, including his game-winning pass to Ron Sellers. It was one of Staubach’s 23 career wins in the fourth quarter, whose penchant for late-game wins earned him the nickname “Captain Comeback”. Dallas also received two interceptions from defenseman Charlie Waters, who helped 49ers quarterback Brody go just 150 yards.

3. 1994 NFC Championship Game: 49ers 38, Cowboys 28

The motivated 49ers took a 21-0 lead thanks to two forced losses. Dallas closed the gap to 24–14 before Young hit Rice with a 44-yard bomb shortly before halftime. Despite valiant efforts, the Cowboys were never able to close the gap, failing in their bid to become the first team to win three Super Bowls in a row. Although they fell short of their goal, Aikman called the game the proudest moment for the Cowboys of the ’90s. With Smith playing due to injury, Dallas received a Herculean try from Irvin, who caught 12 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns.

But the star of the day was Young, who ended the game with a 3-yard touchdown. The former Montana understudy made the winning lap after leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl for the fifth time. Young ended his MVP season with a career-high six touchdowns in the San Francisco Super Bowl victory over the Chargers.

2. 1992 NFC Championship Game: Cowboys 30, 49ers 20

It was a changing of the guard game as the Cowboys toppled the 49ers as a major league team. The Cowboys held a shaky 24–20 lead after Young and Rice connected for a 5-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Rather than play conservatively, the Cowboys went for the win when Harper threw a 70-yard slant pass to set up Aikman’s game-deciding pass to Calvin Martin. The Cowboys’ offense was backed up by Smith, who scored 173 yards and two touchdowns on a muddy track. Dallas crushed the Bills 52-17 to win the franchise’s first championship since 1977.

1. 1981 NFC Championship Game: 49ers 28, Cowboys 27

The strongest NFC team in the 1970s, the Cowboys hoped to return to the Super Bowl for a sixth time by appearing in the 1981 NFC title game. The Cowboys first needed to get past the San Francisco team, which had a 31-point lead over them back in Week 6. A rematch would have been a completely different story as the two teams faced off in one of the most competitive championship games in NFL history.

The Cowboys took the lead thanks to a 21-yard touchdown pass from Danny White to Doug Cosby with 10:41 left. Trailing 27-21 with 4:54 left, Montana led the 49ers in an 89-yard race that included Lenville Elliott with more runners. Walsh’s offense kept the Cowboys’ defense on their heels with sweeps, a reverse for receiver Freddie Solomon, who had 14 yards, and intermediate passes from Montana to Solomon and fellow wide receiver Dwight Clark (more on him in a second).

Colliding with third and third with 58 seconds left, Montana rolled to the right before being quickly met by three Dallas defensemen. Despite the flurry of defenders, Montana survived and threw the ball into the end zone. Although he couldn’t see him, Montana trusted…


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