Cowboys-49ers rivalry is undergoing a renaissance

ByNick Wagoner and Todd Archer ESPN logo
Friday, October 6, 2023

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Less than an hour after the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys dispatched their Week 4 opponents, they had no desire to take the customary 24 hours to bask in their latest wins. They were already thinking about something else: each other.

In their locker rooms after beating the Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots, respectively, multiple Niners and Cowboys wasted no time looking ahead to their Week 5 "Sunday Night Football" clash (8:20 p.m. ET, Levi's Stadium, NBC).

After all, 49ers (4-0) vs. Cowboys (3-1) is not only a matchup of two of the league's best teams this season, but one of the most historically significant rivalries in NFL history. A rivalry that only recently has been brought back to life.

"It's an important game," said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy, who was San Francisco's offensive coordinator in 2005. "You understand the history. There is obviously a lot of tradition with this game. That's all part of it. You live to play in these kinds of games. You dream about these kinds of games. You don't want to make it bigger than what it is, but the reality is it's not just another game."

Theirs is a rivalry borne not out of geography or divisional alignment but of repeated meetings in the postseason crucible.

It started in the 1970s, when the Cowboys won consecutive NFC Championship Games over the 49ers in the 1970 and 1971 seasons and bested San Francisco in a divisional playoff game in 1972. In the 1980s, the 49ers won four Super Bowls, beating the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 10, 1982, on the strength of "The Catch" by Dwight Clark, arguably the most memorable moment of the rivalry.

Dallas came storming back in the 1990s, knocking off the Niners in the NFC Championship Game after the 1992 and 1993 seasons on its way to two Super Bowl titles. San Francisco finally got past Dallas the next season in the NFC Championship Game on its way to its fifth (and most recent) Lombardi Trophy. The Cowboys would bounce back to win their fifth (and most recent) championship the following year.

And then ... nothing.

The teams did not meet again in the postseason until a wild-card game on Jan. 16, 2022, a span of 9,863 days. The teams met again last season in the NFC divisional round. The 49ers won both games by a combined 13 points, reviving the rivalry and setting the stage for Sunday night.

"Anytime you play each other in the playoffs, it's always usually a bit bigger the next year," said Niners coach Kyle Shanahan, who was a ball boy for the team in the 1990s when his father, Mike, was the 49ers' offensive coordinator. "And with that being back-to-back, it was huge. That's what I always remembered growing up ...

"They played in the NFC Championship all three years that I lived here. So just playing them in the playoffs two years ago kind of was reminiscent of that ... and those histories stack up just like people in your division. But usually when it's a playoff game everyone remembers it a little bit more."

Sunday's matchup will feature many familiar faces from their past two meetings. Besides the head coaches, star players such as linebacker Micah Parsons, quarterback Dak Prescott, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, guard Zack Martin and wide receiver CeeDee Lamb still dot the Cowboys roster while the Niners lean on their own galaxy of stars such as defensive end Nick Bosa, linebacker Fred Warner, running back Christian McCaffrey, offensive tackle Trent Williams and quarterback Brock Purdy.

Most of those players were not born or were infants and toddlers for those 1990s playoff meetings, but the history of the rivalry has been ingrained and reinforced by the atmosphere surrounding the past two playoff matchups.

"You know prior to here, I saw it was definitely big," Parsons said. "When they came down here [in the 2021 playoffs], I really saw it my rookie year and seeing it last year, how big that game was ... that impacted me that 'Oh, this is serious.'"

The challenge this week for both teams is to understand how serious this meeting is without putting too much importance on it. Yes, it's only Week 5 and a loss probably won't determine each team's fate this season. But there are long-term ramifications that come with Sunday's result. Playoff seeding and home-field advantage might seem like far-off conversations, but a win Sunday night could go a long way in determining potential tiebreakers for those benchmarks.

What's more, neither team has played a particularly daunting schedule to date. Dallas' opponents are 3-9 and San Francisco's 6-6 in games.

Suffice to say, Sunday night should offer a good barometer of how far along these two expected Super Bowl contenders are.

"It's a huge test," Warner said. "To say that it isn't would be nave and downplaying the moment, I think. I'm excited for that moment. I know our team is excited for it."

One semi-new element is the introduction of the Sunday night lights. The 49ers and Cowboys haven't played a prime-time game against each other since November 1990. Their only other prime-time matchups came on "Monday Night Football" in 1977 and 1983.

Sunday's meeting will also likely break a tie in the all-time series, as the teams enter knotted at 19-19-1. In addition to their five Super Bowl titles apiece, the Niners and Dallas rank Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, all time in NFC playoff wins and conference championship game appearances.

But, as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones alluded to earlier this week, for as important as Sunday's meeting is, it very well could be a warmup act for a third straight playoff meeting in January. Because, as both sides are quick to remind, when you play for two of the NFL's most successful franchises, the only thing better than beating the other side is winning the whole darn thing.

"There's always a path in the NFC that goes through Dallas, goes through San Francisco," McCarthy said. "I like to think that's what makes this sport so great, the respect you need to have for your history."

Related Video