Arguably the greatest rivalry of the back half of the 20th century, the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers played seven times in the NFC Playoffs between 1970-94, including five times in the NFC Championship Game. The final three of those battles, which will resume Sunday in the Super Wild Card Round at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX, took place between 1992-94, with all three games sending the winner on to a Super Bowl victory.
It was the “Triplets” of Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, and Emmitt Smith against Steve Young, battling the Cowboys and the looming specter of former starting quarterback Joe Montana. The three games these teams produced are among the most memorable of their era, a tall task for Dak Prescott and Jimmy Garoppolo to top.
1992: The re-booted Cowboys are back in the saddle as NFC Champions
The 49ers were a year removed from a crushing loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game, literally and figuratively. The Giants had won on a last-second field goal after an uncharacteristic fumble by Roger Craig had given the Giants life in the final minutes.
But the last damage was done by Giants defensive lineman Leonard Marshall, whose blindside hit on Joe Montana so damaged his surgically-repaired back, he was unable to play in 1991, leaving understudy Steve Young to assume starting duties. But Young responded to the challenge by leading the 49ers back to the NFC Championship against the Cowboys, who had recovered as a franchise from nearly a decade of mediocrity.
When Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys in the late 1980s, the franchise was in deep decline. But the new owner moved swiftly, some felt ruthlessly, to turn the Cowboys back around. Most notably, Jones unceremoniously dumped legendary coach Tom Landry and installed personal friend and University of Miami head coach Jimmy Johnson as his successor. But Jones also drafted, in consecutive years from 1988-90, wide receiver Michael Irvin, quarterback Troy Aikman, and running back Emmitt Smith, who would become known as “The Triplets,” as well as a slew of other top talents via the trade of Herschel Walker to Minnesota, to immediately return the Cowboys to the elite of the NFL.
And in the first postseason rematch since “The Catch” game in 1981, the Cowboys completed their climb to the top by beating Young’s 49ers 30-20 in the 1991 NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park.
1993: It’s a weekend at Bernie’s as Kosar rescues the Cowboys after Aikman’s injury
The Cowboys-49ers rivalry was back as the marquee matchup in the NFL, and the two teams met again in the NFC Championship Game in January 1993, this time at Texas Stadium with the Cowboys as defending Super Bowl champions.
The Cowboys raced to a 28-7 halftime lead behind three unanswered touchdowns in the second quarter, two coming on Aikman touchdown passes. But Aikman would be lost for the game in the third quarter with a concussion, and the 49ers scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 28-14.
It appeared the 49ers were poised to make a comeback similar to their epic rally from 28 points down at the start of Montana’s career in 1980. But the 49ers were denied this time by an unlikely source: Johnson’s college quarterback at Miami, Bernie Kosar.
Kosar had been a star for the Cleveland Browns upon leaving the Hurricanes after the 1984 season. Three times Kosar led the Browns to the AFC Championship Game, only to be denied by John Elway’s Broncos all three times. In 1993, Kosar was cut by head coach Bill Belichick and picked up by Dallas to be Aikman’s backup.
Now, in the NFC Championship Game, Kosar was needed to keep the charging 49ers at bay. And Kosar delivered, converting a key 3rd-and-9 from deep in their own end with 4:55 left in the third, then hitting Alvin Harper for a 42-yard touchdown that restored the lead to 35-14, clearing the way for a 38-21 victory and second consecutive Super Bowl victory over the Buffalo Bills.
1994: Young finally chases away the Cowboys and the ghost of Joe Montana
After the first loss to the Cowboys in the 1992 NFC Championship Game, the 49ers traded Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs, entrenching Young as their quarterback, despite deep misgivings among 49ers fans who had now watched the hated Cowboys beat Young in successive NFC Championship Games and pined for the days when Montana led the 49ers to four Super Bowl titles in nine seasons.
But Young would get a third shot at knocking off Dallas in the NFC Championship and finally put the demons and second-guessers to rest. And with Deion Sanders having joined the team, the 49ers went 13-3 in the regular season and had home field for the second time in three years against the Cowboys.
And this time there would be no three-peat for the Triplets. The 49ers raced to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter and never looked back, sealing the victory late in the first half on a touchdown pass from Young to Jerry Rice to give the 49ers a 31-14 lead in a game they eventually won 38-28.
Then Young exorcised all the remaining ghosts in Super Bowl 29, passing for six touchdowns in a 49-26 rout of the San Diego Chargers.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference