49ers vs. Cowboys: Why these two teams are such big rivals

Head coach Jimmy Johnson of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by James Smith/Getty Images)
Head coach Jimmy Johnson of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by James Smith/Getty Images) /

For those who need the education, the 49ers and Cowboys own one of the NFL’s most storied rivalries, but it’s died down over the last 20 years, unfortunately.

This doesn’t apply to you if you watched the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys square off against each other during the early 1970s, the 1980s or the first half of the 1990s. If you remember all those games during those tumultuous decades, a tip of the hat to you.

You get it.

For the rest of the crowd, probably those who are a bit on the younger side, read on. You need to fully understand the Niners’ history with Dallas.

True, before the 2022 Wild Card round, the two teams haven’t faced off against each other in the postseason since 1995, the days when quarterbacks Steve Young and Troy Aikman, wide receivers Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin and defenders Charles Haley and Deion Sanders were going at each other.

Perhaps that’s why the rivalry has quieted a lot, effectively being dormant the last 25 years or so.

But that shouldn’t eliminate the pure hatred these two teams had for each other.

Let’s start by correcting a notion you might have: The Seattle Seahawks are not San Francisco’s biggest rival. This doesn’t mean you can’t hate the Seahawks. It just means you need to recognize they’re further down the list.

But, why?

Well, let’s put things this way. Remember that gut-wrenching 2014 NFC Championship loss to Seattle, the one where cornerback Richard Sherman went on his now-infamous rant?

Take the pain of that 49ers defeat and multiply it times five.

That’s a massive reason why the Niners hate the Cowboys. And why you should, too.

Cowboys have ended 49ers postseasons in heartbreaking fashion

No team has eliminated San Francisco in the playoffs more than Dallas, totaling five times since the first time these two teams met in the modern-football era during the 1971 NFC Championship game.

In fact, the early 1970s were strewn with 49ers heartbreak at the hands of the Cowboys, as the Niners were bounced in the playoffs three consecutive seasons in a row — 1970, 1971 and 1972 — by a Cowboys team that would go on to proclaim itself “America’s Team.”

Particularly that loss in December of 1972 in the divisional round when San Francisco surrendered 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to lose 30-28, going down as the worst postseason defeat in 49ers history.

Yes, even worse than that 2014 NFC Championship game.

The early 1990s weren’t much better. Back-to-back conference championships in January of 1993 and 1994 saw Dallas beating the 49ers and advancing to the Super Bowl, including that infamous “How ’bout them Cowboys?” quote from then-head coach Jimmy Johnson.


But, just like the Niners and Seahawks were must-watch football during the early 2010s, the two biggest powerhouse teams in the NFL during the 1990s were Dallas and San Francisco.

Those NFC Championship games, three in a row, were the real Super Bowl, truth be told.

Plenty of legendary players have suited up for both 49ers and Cowboys

Perhaps the biggest name, at least from more recent years, to suit up for both teams was Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens, and no one will soon forget his multiple celebrations on the Dallas star back in 2000.

But, just like Sherman switching sides to the 49ers from Seattle in 2018, the Cowboys and Niners have had their share of big-name players who went back and forth when the rivalry was in its heyday.

Particularly Haley and Sanders.

Read More: 5 players 49ers fans absolutely love to hate

Haley’s trade to Dallas in 1992, following three Pro Bowl years with San Francisco, was the spark that gave the Cowboys defense what it needed to become the predominant franchise in the 1990s.

Sanders’ free-agent defection in 1995 also hurt, too.

San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys
Fans support the San Francisco 49ers before the Conference Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images) /

Yet the 49ers also plucked linebacker Ken Norton Jr. away from Dallas in what turned into a powerhouse 1994 Niners squad that eventually went on to win the Super Bowl that season.

Many a classic rivalry has things like this happening.

49ers own their own classic playoff moments over the Cowboys

That 1994 squad finally turned the table on the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game, and Young’s 3-yard touchdown run towards the end of the bout ensured San Francisco won 38-28 en route to the franchise’s fifth Lombardi Trophy.

A great moment, one which vindicated the previous two years’ losses to Dallas in the conference championship.

Yet that incredible game doesn’t hold a candle to the greatest moment in 49ers history, and arguably one of the three greatest moments in professional football: “The Catch.”

You’ve seen the replay a thousand times by now: quarterback Joe Montana rolling out right on the sprint-right option, pump-faking and then delivering the perfect pass to the late-great wide receiver, Dwight Clark, for the go-ahead touchdown in the 1982 NFC Championship game, propelling the Niners to their first Super Bowl.

But what’s lost in that whole moment is the context.

Remember, Dallas had embarrassed the Niners in the playoffs three straight years the previous decade, and that elongated grudge against head coach Tom Landry and an overly cocky Cowboys squad didn’t fade from head coach Bill Walsh’s memory, particularly with how bad San Francisco had played at Dallas in 1980.

For the 49ers to execute a play that resonates four decades later, against their biggest rival, it was pure vindication.

A moment that has to go down as the biggest in the Niners’ biggest rivalry of all time, one which fans have to embrace.

Next. 49ers vs. Cowboys: 10 biggest moments in most storied NFL rivalry. dark