January 10, 2011
The NFC Championship game at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on January 10, 1982 brought together two franchises with different histories – and heading in divergent directions. The visiting Dallas Cowboys were no stranger to the upper echelons of the postseason - since the restructuring due to the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, they had appeared in eight NFC title games, winning five of them, and had prevailed in two of the ensuing Super Bowls. The host 49ers had never won a championship, dating all the way back to the team’s origins in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) of 1946-49. San Francisco had five postseason appearances in the preceding 35 years, losing the AAFC title to the Browns in 1949 and NFC title games to the Cowboys following the 1970 and ’71 seasons.
The Cowboys, under venerable Head Coach Tom Landry, won the NFC East with a 12-4 record. While they lost to the 49ers along the way, they had won four of their last five regular season games and decimated the Buccaneers in the Divisional playoff round. QB Danny White had a solid season, ranking second in the league in passing, and RB Tony Dorsett ran for 1646 yards. Two rookies in the defensive backfield paid dividends as CB Everson Walls led the NFL with 11 interceptions and FS Michael Downs contributed seven pickoffs. Dallas was a strong, consistently solid club, and was expected to contend.
San Francisco had not been expected to jump so high after four straight losing seasons. However, in the third year under innovative Head Coach Bill Walsh, the 49ers broke out in a big way, going 13-3 to win the NFC West. The emergence of third-year QB Joe Montana (pictured at right) had been the key as he led the NFL in passing and ran the complex West Coast offense with a cool precision. The running game was ordinary, but WR Dwight Clark was a dependable, if not speedy, target and the offensive line, led by G Randy Cross, stepped up. Two veterans, LB Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds and DE Fred Dean, contributed significantly to the defense, as did the backfield that contained three rookie starters – most notably CB Ronnie Lott, who achieved All-Pro recognition in his first year. The Niners had easily beaten the Giants in the Divisional round to advance to the conference title game.
The 49ers drove to the first score of the day, an eight-yard touchdown pass from Montana to WR Freddie Solomon in the first quarter. Dallas came back with a 44-yard field goal by Rafael Septien and then, following a fumble by San Francisco RB Bill Ring, the Cowboys struck again as White connected with WR Tony Hill for a 26-yard TD. The score was 10-7 in favor of Dallas after one quarter.
The Niners regained the lead in the second quarter when Montana, throwing while falling down, hit Clark for a 20-yard touchdown. But as the game settled into a back-and-forth affair, the Cowboys again came back on an 80-yard drive, including a pass interference call on Lott that gained 34 yards, and was capped by a five-yard scoring run by Dorsett. Dallas took a 17-14 lead into halftime.
The teams exchanged turnovers in the third quarter. Following San Francisco LB Bobby Leopold’s interception of a tipped pass, the 49ers went back ahead when RB Johnny Davis ran for a two-yard TD.
Early in the fourth quarter, Septien cut the San Francisco margin to 21-20 with a 22-yard field goal. Another fumble by the Niners, this time RB Walt Easley, gave Dallas the ball at midfield. Four plays later, a 21-yard scoring pass from White to TE Doug Cosbie made the score 27-21 and put the Cowboys in a commanding position with time running down.
Walls intercepted a Montana pass on the next possession, but the Cowboys were unable to move the ball and punted. With 4:54 left on the clock, San Francisco took over at its 11 yard line. Using short passes and runs by RB Lenvil Elliott, the 49ers moved methodically down the field. Coming out of the two-minute warning, they ran Solomon on a reverse, and he picked up 14 yards to the Dallas 35. Despite a heavy Dallas pass rush, Montana completed passes of 10 yards to Clark and 12 to Solomon. Elliott took off around end for a seven-yard gain.
San Francisco faced a third-and-three situation at the Dallas six with time down to 58 seconds. Montana took the snap and rolled to his right. With DE Larry Bethea about to hit him and his primary receiver (Solomon) covered, he fired an off-balance pass that was high and to the outside of Clark, coming across the back of the end zone. The 6’4” receiver leaped and grabbed the ball for a touchdown (pictured at top). With the successful extra point by Ray Wersching, the 49ers clung to a one-point lead.
The Cowboys got the ball back with 51 seconds still to go, and it seemed as though they might yet pull off a comeback of their own. White fired a pass to WR Drew Pearson that covered 31 yards to the San Francisco 44, where he was pulled down by CB Eric Wright. However, on the next play DT Lawrence Pillers caused White to fumble, and DE Jim Stuckey recovered for the Niners. San Francisco was on the way to its first Super Bowl appearance by a score of 28-27.
The 49ers outgained Dallas (393 yards to 250) and had more first downs (26 to 16). However, they also turned the ball over six times, to three by the Cowboys, which nearly proved fatal.
Joe Montana completed 22 of 35 passes for 286 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions (two by Everson Walls). Dwight Clark caught 8 passes for 120 yards and the two big TDs while Freddie Solomon contributed 6 receptions for 75 yards and a score. Lenvil Elliott led the Niners with 48 yards on 10 carries.
For the Cowboys, Danny White (pictured below) was successful on 16 of 24 passes for 173 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Tony Dorsett, who had to sit out three series in the first half due to an eye injury, gained 91 yards on 22 rushing attempts. RB James Jones, RB Ron Springs, and TE Billy Joe DuPree each caught three passes, while Tony Hill’s 43 yards on two receptions, including a TD, led the club.
“I was split out right,” Clark said in recounting the decisive touchdown pass. “Both Freddie (Solomon) and I go down into the end zone and slide back on the end line. The two defensive backs who were on me were watching Joe and when he scrambled out I just slid down the end line and got a step on them. When the ball went up it was just a matter of me going up and getting it. Joe put it in a place where it was either going to be caught by me or be incomplete. There was no chance of an interception.”
“The 49ers aren't a better team than us, but the game ended at the right time for them,” summed up Tom Landry.
“It's kind of like driving a car off the end of a cliff,” said Dallas safety Charlie
Waters, following what was the final game of his eleven-year career. “All I will remember is that they drove 89 yards on us.”
San Francisco went on to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals, another upstart team, in the Super Bowl. It would be the first of four during the decade of the ‘80s, all with Montana at quarterback and three with Walsh as head coach. While Dallas would return to the postseason in three of the next four years, they would not make it back to a Super Bowl until the game following the 1992 season.