One of the NFL's most iconic rivalries will be revived in Sunday's Wild Card matchup. In a cutthroat history that dates back to the 1960's, the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys have gone head-to-head in the postseason with an energy unlike any other rivalry.
"That's what you love in sports," author Lawrence Ross said about the historic matchup. "When you have two teams that completely hate each other who are at the top in their prime, and they go at it."
Both teams ruled the NFC in the early 1990's when they played against each other in championship games for three straight seasons (1992-94). The last time the 49ers and Cowboys met in the playoffs was the 1994 NFC Championship, when San Francisco went on to win Super Bowl XXIX. Head coach Kyle Shanahan was just 15 years old during the championship tilt when his father, Mike, served as the 49ers offensive coordinator.
"That's the coolest part of my childhood growing up," Shanahan said. "'92, '93, '94, every single year. I thought we were the best team in the league … that was such cool football because everyone knew that for those three NFC championships, those three years were the Super Bowl."
No team has eliminated San Francisco in the playoffs more than Dallas, totaling five times since the teams first met in the 1971 NFC Championship game. In the 49ers last playoff battle with the Cowboys, San Francisco was ruled an underdog after Dallas defeated them in back-to-back championships and stood as Super Bowl defending champions. Yet, the 49ers took the victory with a star-studded team that featured Pro Bowlers Steve Young, Ricky Watters, Jerry Rice, Tim McDonald, Jesse Sapolu, Brent Jones and Deion Sanders.
"To let them know that it wasn't the same old 49ers, it was a new team with a lot of swag," former 49ers linebacker Ken Norton Jr. said about the 1994 NFC Championship game. "Dallas needed to feel it, and they felt it."
The same could be said about the 2021 49ers squad – a new team, with a lot of swag.
Although having rode all the way to Super Bowl LIV in their first season with the 49ers, Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel have recently executed the best seasons of their careers. Triple-threat Samuel earned a combined 1,770 yards and 14 total touchdowns as a rusher and receiver, earning first-team All-Pro honors for the first time in his career. Not to mention his 24-yard touchdown pass to Jauan Jennings. Meanwhile, Bosa notched a career-high 15.5 sacks while leading the league in tackles for loss (21).
As a 12-year veteran, left tackle Trent Williams has only seen two postseason games in his entire career while with the Washington Football Team. In his second season with San Francisco, Williams earned the highest grade ever for any player in Pro Football Focus history (98.2). The tackle is expected to play in Sunday's game after missing the regular season finale with an elbow injury, and will be seeking his first postseason win.
"Half of the league is already enjoying the off season, and then there's another half of the teams that took care of business during the season, they get to play for something more," Williams said. "To know that you're a part of that bunch. It definitely breeds confidence in the organization … It's so gratifying to know that we're still here and we're still fighting, there's literally not a fight that we haven't seen and this team has enough grit and has enough resolve to do anything we want to do."
While seasoned veterans have been breaking personal records, 49ers rookies have also become an essential aspect of the team's success.
Running Back Elijah Mitchell amassed 963 total rushing yards in his first regular season, ranked eighth in the NFL among all players and second among rookies. Ambry Thomas, the first-year cornerback, has also stepped up and contributed to San Francisco's sixth-ranked passing defense, with the first interception of his career sending his team to the postseason.
A fired up San Francisco team understandably knows that Sunday's playoff matchup will be far from a cakewalk. Leading the NFC East, Dallas puts up a threatening offensive front as they rank first in points per game and total offense. Their defense is also not to be overlooked as they have notched 26 interceptions and lead the league in turnover differential (+14).
|Record||10-7 (3rd NFC West)||12-5 (1st NFC East)|
|Points per game||25.1 (13th)||31.2 (1st)|
|Total offense||375.7 (7th)||407.0 (1st)|
|Rushing offense||127.4 (7th)||124.6 (9th)|
|Passing offense||248.3 (12th)||282.4 (t-2nd)|
|Possession average||30:40 (11th)||30:19 (17th)|
|Points allowed per game||21.5 (t-9th)||21.1 (7th)|
|Total defense||310.0 (3rd)||351.0 (19th)|
|Rushing defense||103.5 (7th)||112.8 (16th)|
|Passing defense||206.5 (6th)||238.2 (20th)|
|Sacks||48 (t-5th)||41 (t-13th)|
|Interceptions||9 (t-26th)||26 (1st)|
|Punting average (gross)||45.0 (18th)||48.4 (4th)|
|Turnover differential||-4 (t-22nd)||+14 (t-1st)|
If history has proven anything, Sunday's game will be a physical matchup between two teams who possess a hate-filled historic rivalry, with league-renowned playmakers in red and in blue.