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Be warned, NFC Playoff teams. Frankly, the warning goes out to all 12 of the other teams in the 2021 NFL Playoffs. You are all playing for second place. It’s over. We have a Super Bowl 56 winner.

Or, rather, we will have a winner around 8 p.m. ET, on Sunday.

The Dallas Cowboys are hosting the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL Super Wild Card round this weekend, and that is terrible news for the rest of the league. Because if history has taught us anything about the Cowboys-49ers playoff rivalry, it’s that to the winner goes the spoils. And that means that shiny trophy with the big football on it.

Seven times, the Cowboys and 49ers have faced off in the playoffs. And in six of those seven games, the winner has advanced to the Super Bowl. Five of those teams have won the Super Bowl, including the previous four winners in the series.

Sunday marks the first meeting since the NFC Championship Game in 1994. The 49ers won that most-recent epic contest between the royalty of the NFC. And guess what? That team won the Super Bowl. Let’s take a look at the storied history of the previous seven meetings:

The Cowboys owned the rivalry in the 1970s, and gave birth to “Captain Comeback”

The Cowboys and 49ers meet Sunday in the Super Wild Card Round
Dak Prescott | Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The Cowboys and 49ers first met in the playoffs in the 1970 season, and for the first of two times over the next 25 years, the teams would face each other in three straight playoff seasons. But unlike the 1990s version of the trilogy, the Cowboys would win all three games played between 1970-72.

At the time, both the Cowboys and 49ers were teams with haunted playoff pasts: The 49ers were best known for having blown a 17-point lead to the Detroit Lions in the 1957 NFL Divisional Round, while the Cowboys had famously lost consecutive NFL Championship Games to the Green Bay Packers, including the Ice Bowl in 1967.

Now the Cowboys would add more misery to the 49ers, winning the 1970 and ’71 NFC Championship Games 17-10 and 14-3, winning Super Bowl 6 after the second win. In 1972, the Cowboys rallied from a 15-point, fourth-quarter deficit for a 30-28 victory in the Divisional Round, as Roger Staubach was put into the game to start the fourth quarter and led the first great comeback of his career, earning him the nickname, “Captain Comeback.”

The 49ers finally got a win with “The Catch” in the 1981 NFC Championship Game

A decade later, it was the 49ers who pulled off the iconic comeback.

While coach Tom Landry remained the holdover from the 1970s battles, it was a totally new era for the 49ers, who were lead by head coach Bill Walsh and quarterback Joe Montana against Staubach’s successor, Danny White.

In the 1981 NFC Championship Game, the 49ers erased all their bad history in one frantic drive in the final 4:54, overcoming a 27-21 deficit on “The Catch,” a six-yard touchdown pass from Montana to Dwight Clark, who skied to grab Montana’s desperation fling into the corner of the end zone with 51 seconds left.

Then the 49ers barely hung on to their 28-27 lead by forcing White to fumble at midfield to send the 49ers to Super Bowl 16, where they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, 26-21, for the first championship in franchise history. By the end of the 1980s, the 49ers would add three more Super Bowl titles to their ledger.

The Cowboys, stunned by The Catch, descended into their worst decade since entering the league in 1960. But as the 1990s began, the Cowboys rose again to challenge the 49ers for league supremacy.

The rivalry renewed with the famous trilogy in the 1990s with Aikman vs. Young

The 1990s brought a great transition to both franchises, as a crippling back injury hastened the 49ers’ transition from Montana to Steve Young, while the Cowboys made an even bigger regime change, as new owner Jerry Jones sacked Landry and replaced him with Jimmy Johnson. The Cowboys then added Troy Aikman to the combo of Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith and a new dynasty was born.

The Cowboys and 49ers would face off in three straight NFC Championship Games between 1992-94, with the Cowboys continuing their overall dominance of the rivalry with two more wins in the first two meetings, both leading to victories over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowls 27 and 28.

Already struggling to overcome the ghost of Montana, and now having lost twice in a row to the Cowboys, dropping the head-to-head playoff record to 1-5 against Dallas, Young finally overcame all the history and all the doubters in 1994, beating the Cowboys 38-28 in the NFC Championship Game, then throwing six touchdown passes in Super Bowl 29 as the 49ers routed the San Diego Chargers, giving the playoff winner between San Francisco and Dallas three combined Super Bowl wins in a row, four in a row dating back to The Catch in 1981 and 5 of 7 since the rivalry began.

On Sunday, it’s Dak Prescott vs. Jimmy Garoppolo. History awaits the winner.

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference


Eric Wright, Not Dwight Clark, Was the 49ers’ Hero Against the Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship Game