In the first season of the NFL enlarged by merger with the American Football League, the championship game of the newly-created National Football Conference on January 3, 1971 featured the Dallas Cowboys, a club that had been to the playoffs in each of the previous four years, against the San Francisco 49ers, who had been to the postseason just twice in their history – one of which was in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC).
The Cowboys, coached for the eleventh year by Tom Landry, were a highly talented club but were only 5-4 after being blown out 38-0 by the Cardinals in a Monday night contest. They didn’t lose again, finishing atop the NFC East at 10-4. Rookie RB Duane Thomas (pictured above) had joined an already-well stocked backfield and ran for 803 yards. QB Craig Morton was a capable passer and WR Bob Hayes a dangerous deep threat. The defense was formidable and contained Pro Bowl DT Bob Lilly and CB Mel Renfro as well as All-Pro LB Chuck Howley. The Cowboys beat Detroit in a low-scoring 5-0 contest to earn a spot in the NFC Championship contest.
San Francisco, under Head Coach Dick Nolan (a former Dallas assistant), got a big season from QB John Brodie, who had an outstanding target in WR Gene Washington. The defense came together impressively and included solid veterans in LB Dave Wilcox, CB Jimmy Johnson, and FS Roosevelt Taylor. In addition, rookie CB Bruce Taylor proved to be an outstanding punt returner. The 49ers placed first in the NFC West with a 10-3-1 record to make it to the playoffs for the first time since tying for first in the Western Conference in 1957. They defeated the Vikings in the Divisional round to advance to the conference title game.
There were 59,625 in attendance on a cool and clear day at Kezar Stadium for what was to be the last pro football game played at the venerable venue – the 49ers were slated to move to Candlestick Park for the 1971 season. The 49ers threatened first when Brodie threw to Washington for 42 yards, but the wide receiver couldn’t maintain his footing and went down at the Dallas nine. San Francisco missed out on a sure touchdown when Brodie misfired on a pass to an open FB Ken Willard in the end zone and the home team had to settle for a 16-yard Bruce Gossett field goal.
The game settled into a defensive struggle for the remainder of the first half. The Cowboys moved the ball more effectively but couldn’t put points on the board until Mike Clark, who missed from 40 yards in the opening period, kicked a 21-yard field goal in the second quarter. The score was just 3-3 at the half.
The teams traded punts to start the third quarter, at which point the game turned on two interceptions. San Francisco, starting its next possession at its 21 yard line, lost ground when Brodie was sacked by LB Dave Edwards for a seven-yard loss. With DE Larry Cole pressuring him on the next play, Brodie tried to throw the ball away but MLB Lee Roy Jordan (pictured at left) made a shoestring interception. Dallas had the ball at the San Francisco 13 and on the next play Duane Thomas cut toward the sideline and broke three tackles on the way to a touchdown.
On San Francisco’s next series, Brodie threw long for Gene Washington but CB Mel Renfro picked it off at the Dallas 19 and returned it 19 yards. The Cowboys proceeded to advance 62 yards in nine plays for another TD on a five-yard pass from Craig Morton to RB Walt Garrison. Along the way, Garrison, playing despite suffering a sprained ankle in the first quarter, ran for 12 yards and then gained 23 yards on a screen pass to the San Francisco 29. A Morton pass intended for Bob Hayes was overthrown but SS Mel Phillips was flagged for pass interference, setting up the TD throw.
The 49ers came back with an impressive 73-yard drive in eight plays that ended with Brodie throwing to TE Dick Witcher for a 26-yard touchdown.
On the next series, the 49ers nearly got a big break when Thomas fumbled, but WR Reggie Rucker recovered to not only retain possession for the Cowboys but give them a first down. Dallas drove to the San Francisco 17 but came up empty when Clark’s 24-yard field goal try sailed wide.
The 49ers got no closer than the Dallas 39 in the time remaining, and in that instance a pass intended for Witcher was broken up by CB Herb Adderley and Gossett missed a 47-yard field goal attempt. The Cowboys, playing near error-free football, held on to win by a score of 17-10.
Dallas had the advantage in total yards (319 to 307), with 229 yards of that total coming on the ground as the Cowboys attacked the less-experienced side of the 49ers defense by running to the right. They also had the edge in first downs (22 to 15), ran more plays (75 to 61), and held onto the ball for almost ten more minutes than the Niners. The 49ers gave up the two big third quarter turnovers while Dallas turned the ball over once.
Duane Thomas had an outstanding performance as he rushed for 143 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries and caught two passes for 24 more yards. Walt Garrison (pictured below) contributed 71 yards on 17 rushing attempts and was also the team’s leading receiver with three catches for 51 yards and a score. Craig Morton completed just 7 of 22 passes for 101 yards and a TD with none intercepted. Only one pass was completed to a wide receiver (Reggie Rucker for 21 yards).
For the 49ers, John Brodie, who was under heavy pressure throughout the second half, was successful on 19 of 40 throws for 262 yards and a touchdown and the two interceptions. Gene Washington had 6 catches for 88 yards and Bob Windsor added 70 yards on his three receptions. Ken Willard paced the running attack with 42 yards on 13 carries.
“Lee Roy Jordan’s interception was the real key play,” said Tom Landry. “But the key to the game was our ability to run the football.”
“We have a good team and we met a good team. I feel this way – we’ll be back,” said Dick Nolan.
The Cowboys, having reached the Super Bowl for the first time, lost a close contest to the Baltimore Colts. The two teams again topped their divisions in 1971 and advanced to a rematch in the NFC Championship game, where Dallas prevailed once more.