49ers vs. Cowboys: The 10 greatest games

The Dallas Cowboys are coming to town, and that means something. Ever since the 49ers and Cowboys first began playing for NFC supremacy in 1970, the two esteemed franchises have banged heads in some of the more memorable and consequential games of this NFL generation while building one of the most heated rivalries in league history. Here's a look back at the 10 greatest games between the teams.

First-year Niners coach Jim Harbaugh participated in his share of rivalry games during his 15 years playing quarterback with five NFL teams, and in that time he developed an appreciation for the rivalry that topped all others while the 49ers and Cowboys were dominating the league during Harbaugh's 1990s heyday as a player.

"There's just so many games when (those) two uniforms are out there on the field at the same time that stirs up emotions or brings back memories," Harbaugh said this week.

Without further ado, as the 49ers and Cowboys prepare to meet for the 33rd time Sunday at Candlestick Park, NinersDigest sifts through the most memorable that stirred emotion and brings you the greatest 10 games between the two teams.

1. 1982: 49ers 28, Cowboys 27
In this classic that will go down as one of the most memorable and significant games in NFL history, the 49ers ushered in a new era and shift in NFL power that would mark the beginning of a San Francisco dynasty that endured for two decades. Dallas won the Super Bowl in 1978 and lost in it the next season, so the Cowboys were playoff hardened and – in the eyes of many observers – still the team to beat in this NFC title game on the Niners' home field. Dallas went ahead 27-21 early in the fourth quarter and held that lead as the 49ers took possession of the football on their own 11-yard line with 4:54 to play. The Niners moved into Dallas territory at the two-minute warning, then moved inside the 10-yard line to set up the seminal play in 49ers history. Scrambling to his right to avoid a frenzied Dallas pass rush, quarterback Joe Montana appeared to be throwing the ball away as he launched a pass off his back foot toward the end zone. But 6-foot-4 Dwight Clark went into the sky to pull it down for the winning touchdown, completing a 13-play, 89-yard drive with what forever will be known as "The Catch." The win pushed the Niners into their first Super Bowl, which they won 26-21 two weeks later against Cincinnati. But the biggest step toward the team's first Lombardi Trophy was taken here.

2. 1971: Cowboys 17, 49ers 10
The Niners' first trip to the NFC Championship game ended in defeat as a rugged Dallas defense ended the finest season in San Francisco history – to that point – in the final 49ers game at Kezar Stadium. With Duane Thomas rushing for 143 yards, Dallas assumed command and built a 17-3 lead in the third quarter. Despite 262 yards passing from John Brodie, who cut the Dallas lead to 17-10 on a 26-yard scoring pass to Dick Witcher late in the third period, the Niners couldn't get any closer in a scoreless fourth quarter and dropped the first of three consecutive heart-breaking playoff losses to the Cowboys in a three-year span.

3. 1995: 49ers 38, Cowboys 28
After winning four Super Bowl titles in the 1980s, the 49ers found the resurgent Cowboys blocking their path to similar success in the 1990s. Dallas had whipped the 49ers in the previous two NFC championship games, but the Niners were able to deliver a dose of payback here in the third consecutive conference title match between the rivals. San Francisco took advantage of early Dallas miscues and bolted to an early 21-0 lead, then held a 31-14 advantage at halftime before the Cowboys tried to make it interesting in the second half. But quarterback Steve Young scored on a three-yard run in the third quarter to put away the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys and push San Francisco into Super Bowl XXIX, where the 49ers blasted the San Diego Chargers 49-26 to claim their last NFL title. The Niners also had beaten Dallas 21-14 during the regular-season in another heated battle that featured a playoff atmosphere and set the stage for this postseason rematch.

4. 1972: Cowboys 30, 49ers 28
This one was a shocker and heartbreaker for a 49ers team that was minutes away from finally clearing the Dallas playoff hurdle after winning its third consecutive NFC West title. The Niners led 28-13 entering the fourth quarter and 28-16 entering the final two minutes. But quarterback Roger Staubach came off the Dallas bench to connect with Billy Parks on a 20-yard scoring pass with 1:30 remaining, and the Cowboys recovered the ensuing onside kick after it was famously fumbled by Preston Riley in his final game as a 49er, making the wide receiver an eternal goat in 49ers lore. Three plays later, with the clock winding down, Staubach had Dallas in the end zone again to send the Niners to one of the most bitter defeats in team history. The loss also signaled the end of San Francisco's recent surge to NFL power as the 49ers would not be a playoff team again until 1981.

5. 1993: Cowboys 30, 49ers 20
Missing the playoffs in 1991 after appearing in the previous three NFC Championship games and winning two Super Bowls, the 49ers appeared ready to return to their mantle of power after a dominating 14-2 regular season. But a new obstacle appeared to stop them in the form of an old nemesis. The reborn Cowboys, with a new set of stars led by quarterback Troy Aikman and running back Emmitt Smith, pulled away in the second half to shock the favored Niners at home and rekindle an old rivalry that would see the two teams meet in the NFC title game three consecutive years.

6. 1994: Cowboys 38, 49ers 21
The Cowboys and 49ers met again in the NFC Championship game, and this time Dallas was even more convincing in a dominating victory at Texas Stadium that gave the Cowboys their fifth consecutive playoff win over their San Francisco rivals. Even more galling, Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson had openly proclaimed his team would win the game during the week. The Cowboys delivered, scoring 21 consecutive points to build a 28-7 halftime lead from which Dallas never looked back. The Cowboys also had beaten the 49ers 26-17 in Week 6 of the regular season, but it wouldn't happen again the next season. As they were riding down in a Texas Stadium elevator after this beatdown, former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo turned to former team president Carmen Policy and said, "Never again." The next year, the 49ers signed 10 high-profile free agents, including eventual Hall-of-Famers Deion Sanders, Rickey Jackson and Richard Dent to join the Hall-of-Fame talent the Niners already had on hand.

7. 1981: 49ers 45, Cowboys 14
This October game at Candlestick Park represented a turning point in franchise history as the Niners, off to a 3-2 start, faced a Dallas juggernaut that had drilled San Francisco 59-14 in the same week of the season the year before to extend its winning streak against the 49ers to five games. But this time, it was the Niners that did the drilling in a one-sided rout that opened the eyes of the football world to what coach Bill Walsh had brewing in San Francisco. This monumental victory pushed the 49ers to 15 wins in their final 16 games (including playoffs) of this landmark San Francisco season, and the two teams would meet again three months later in the classic game that tops this list.

8. 1972: Cowboys 14, 49ers 3
The 49ers met the Cowboys in the NFC title game for the second year in a row, and this time Dallas prevailed again in a defensive battle that featured just 483 yards of total offense from the two teams combined. The Dallas defense intercepted quarterback John Brodie three times, and the only scoring the 49ers could muster was a 28-yard field goal by Bruce Gossett that brought them within 7-3 entering the fourth quarter at Texas Stadium. But they could get no closer as Duane Thomas' 2-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter sealed the deal.

9. 2000: 49ers 41, Cowboys 24
The only game on this list that featured a 49ers team that had a losing record and would not be heading to the playoffs at the end of the season, this unforgettable wild ride featured Terrell Owens' flamboyant rise to notorious NFL star because of what he twice did on the midfield star at Texas Stadium. Owens sparked controversy and almost a riot after both of his touchdown receptions, the first of which featured Owens sprinting to the gigantic silver star that adorned the center of Dallas' old home field, then spreading his arms wide and holding them upward as he looked toward the heavens through the hole in the Texas Stadium roof. When Owens showboated in similar fashion after scoring his final TD with 4:05 remaining, he was decked by Dallas safety George Teague, inciting a wild exchange of Niners running into Cowboys as the fur flew between the two teams like seldom before or since.

10. 2002: 49ers 31, Cowboys 27
The 49ers' next visit to Texas Stadium after the Owens debacle turned into one of the best in the rivalry as San Francisco rallied from a 27-17 deficit with fewer than six minutes to play to clinch its first NFC West title in five seasons. Quarterback Jeff Garcia sparked the rally, connecting on a 23-yard touchdown pass to Tai Streets with 5:26 remaining, then leading a dramatic 13-play touchdown drive in the final two minutes. That march ended with – you guessed it – Owens pulling in a 8-yard touchdown pass from Garcia with 12 seconds remaining, sending the 49ers to their last trip to the playoffs.

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