Sunday’s playoff game between the 49ers and Cowboys will be the 38th matchup between the two and the eighth time they’ve met in the playoffs. The Cowboys hold the series lead 19-17-1. They also are up in the playoff series 5-2.
Both of these two teams met a year ago, but neither of the starting quarterbacks playing Sunday appeared in that game. As we preview this weekend’s game, we’ll review some of the old rivalry games as the week goes along. Let’s start with the 70s today.
Dallas dominates the 70s
The Cowboys beat the 49ers twice in two years in the NFC Championship in 1970 and 1971. Dallas also beat the Niners in the Divisional round in 1972.
Let’s rewind to 1970. This was the first season the Niners won double-digit games since the merger. They were 10-3 and had just upset the 12-win “Purple People Eater” Vikings on the road 17-14 in the Divisional round.
This was the first championship game the organization had been a part of since 1948. Head coach Dick Nolan, who served as the Cowboys defensive coordinator from 1962-1967 before taking over as San Francisco’s head coach, was going up against his mentor Tom Landry.
And while this success was new for the 49ers, they entered this game with the NFL’s MVP in John Brodie at quarterback. At the time, the Niners set a record for the fewest sacks allowed in a season with eight.
The Cowboys hadn’t allowed a touchdown in 21 consecutive quarters on the other side of the ball. The 49ers jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first quarter but failed to reach the end zone until the third quarter.
Nolan’s familiarity with Dallas and the “gold-rushers,” led by Charlier Kreuger, limited the Cowboys to three completions in the first half for a measly 29 yards. Like last week, the 49ers had to play a backup defensive back out of position that cost them.
Unlike last week, Cowboys quarterback Craig Morton overthrew a wide-open receiver, which bailed out Johnny Fuller for the lone play he was in the game. Morton finished the game going 7-for-22 for 101 yards.
Brodie threw the ball 40 times but only completed 19 of his passes with two interceptions. San Francisco needed their MVP on a day where the ground game couldn’t get anything going.
Brodie had weapons. Gene Washington was a 3-time All-Pro and 4-time Pro Bowler. 1970 was the best season of his career as Washington had 1,100 receiving yards on 52 receptions. Averaging 20.8 yards per reception with 12 touchdowns in that era should be enough to make you go watch Gene Washington highlights.
The offense dialed up a perfect shot-play toward the end of the second quarter around their 40-yard line. The Cowboys blitzed, which left Washington 1-on-1 open down the field. The speedy Washington got behind the defense, but the ball went over his outstretched arms.
The play was nearly identical to when Rams QB Matthew Stafford completed a deep pass down the sideline to Cooper Kupp against Jimmie Ward this past Sunday.
Football is a team sport. That gets left out too often as we spend most of our time comparing quarterbacks or ranking players. The replay showed that the running back missed his block, which allowed the blitzing linebacker to affect Brodie’s throw.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, they wouldn’t get any points out of that drive, and that wouldn’t be the only time Brodie missed an open receiver for a big play.
Fortunately for the 49ers, Washington — who is running by cornerbacks like he’s Tedd Ginn — caught a deep pass before the end of the half that led to the game's first score to make it 3-0.
The similarities between the 49ers team in 1970 and today were strikingly similar. The score was tied at 3 apiece at halftime. It felt like the Niners should be up by double-digits. The defense shut down the Cowboys on every drive but one. No matter the result of the game, how could you fault the defense?
The Niners stopped Dallas and forced a punt in the third quarter. The 49ers wanted to catch the Cowboys off guard and throw the ball down the field to start their drive. Remember how Brodie had been the least sacked quarterback during the season? Brodie was sacked on first down for a loss of seven yards.
A linebacker caught Brodie’s next throw as he stepped in front of the tight end for an interception. Dallas would score on the ensuing play as Duane Thomas seemingly made the entire defense miss to score from 13 yards out.
Brodie left a deep pass to Washington down the sideline short and inside, which resulted in his second interception. The defense couldn’t stop the run this quarter. But this was the play that probably won the game for the Cowboys.
Mel Phillips plays the ball perfectly in the air but was flagged for defensive pass interference. This play is the reason why 49ers fans all have it embedded into their brains that the referees are against them at all times.
Brodie’s second interception led to another touchdown to make it 17-10 with about a quarter and a half to play.
However, Brodie was the MVP for a reason. San Francisco scored before the end of the third quarter on a 26-yard dime from Brodie to Dick Witcher. That was the first touchdown Dallas had allowed in 24 quarters. That would be the last score they gave up all game.
The 49ers had their chances to win the game. They failed to recover two fumbles when it was 17-10, dropped an interception, and the Cowboys missed a chip shot field goal to keep it a one-score game.
Again, the similarities between these two teams are startling. Kyle Shanahan has turned over a new leaf when it comes to 4th down aggressiveness. But it hasn’t always been that way.
In the NFC Championship with eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter needing a touchdown to win, Nolan kicks a field goal from the 40-yard line on 4th & 5. However, the kick looked about four yards short.
The defense had a chance to get off the field later on in the quarter. But on 3rd & 11, Morton was sandwiched by two 49er defenders yet hit his receiver for a significant gain on a massive conversion that would eat up critical time on the clock. The Cowboys ended up having to punt after Morton battled a rib injury, but that big play helped flip the field for the stingiest defense in the NFL.
Brodie and the offense faced a 3rd & 19. Washington picked up 13 yards on third down. So, it came down to 4th & 7 with 2:15 left on the clock. Brodie fit the ball into a tight spot over the middle — an MVP type of throw — but Ken Williard couldn’t hold on in traffic. That’s how the best season in the franchise’s history to date ended.
Watching this game helps give you an insight into this storied rivalry and sets the table for the future games to come.