January 17, 2016

1993: Cowboys Defeat 49ers to Win NFC Championship

The Dallas Cowboys were appearing in the NFC Championship game for the first time in ten years as they faced the San Francisco 49ers on January 17, 1993. The Cowboys had improved steadily under Head Coach Jimmy Johnson and topped the NFC East with a 13-3 record during the ’92 season. The offense was built around QB Troy Aikman (pictured above), RB Emmitt Smith, and WR Michael Irvin and the defense was outstanding behind a solid line that included DE Charles Haley and tackles Russell Maryland and Tony Casillas. Dallas blew out the Eagles in the Divisional playoff round to advance to the conference title game.

The 49ers, coached by George Seifert, finished first in the NFC West at 14-2, having bounced back from a 1991 season in which they missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years. QB Steve Young, emerging from the shadow of his illustrious predecessor Joe Montana, was coming off a MVP season and WR Jerry Rice, despite dealing with some injuries, was chosen to his seventh straight Pro Bowl. RB Ricky Watters, in his first season after having missed his entire rookie year due to injury, gained 1418 yards from scrimmage and also was selected to the Pro Bowl. San Francisco defeated Washington in its Divisional game the previous week and had not lost since November 1 for a string of nine straight wins.

There were 64,920 fans in attendance at Candlestick Park on a rainy day, and the field was muddy. The 49ers had the game’s first possession and had to punt following a series in which an apparent 63-yard scoring play to Jerry Rice was nullified due to a holding penalty called on guard Guy McIntyre. Dallas reached the San Francisco 48 before also having to punt, but the Cowboys regained possession at the 22 when CB Alan Grant fumbled on the return and FB Daryl Johnston recovered. Troy Aikman immediately threw to Michael Irvin for 21 yards to the one, but the 49ers held as Emmitt Smith was thrown for a one-yard loss and two Aikman passes were incomplete. Lin Elliott kicked a 20-yard field goal to put the visitors ahead by 3-0.

RB Marc Logan returned the ensuing kickoff 50 yards and San Francisco advanced 48 yards in eight plays during which Steve Young completed three passes and Ricky Watters had a 16-yard run. Young gained the final yard on a quarterback sneak and, with Mike Cofer adding the extra point, the Niners were in front at 7-3.

With the rain falling again, the Cowboys were forced to punt following their next possession and Grant returned it 15 yards to give San Francisco good starting field position at the Dallas 47. As the game entered the second quarter, the 49ers advanced to the 28 but came up empty when Cofer was wide to the left on a 47-yard field goal attempt.

Once again the Cowboys had to punt, but on the 49ers’ next offensive play Watters fumbled after being hit by CB Larry Brown at the end of a 16-yard run and CB Kevin Smith recovered and returned it 11 yards to the San Francisco 39. Smith carried three straight times for a total of 23 yards and two short passes got Dallas to the eight. Three plays later it was Smith running around end for a four-yard touchdown and, with Elliott’s conversion, the Cowboys were back in the lead by a 10-7 score.

The Niners came back on offense with 5:05 to play in the first half and Young completed three passes, the longest to Rice for 26 yards. The drive was finally halted at the Dallas nine and Cofer tied the game with a 28-yard field goal.

There was still time for the Cowboys, and after Smith (pictured at left) ran for 15 yards and caught two passes for another 14, Aikman threw to Michael Irvin for 14 yards to the San Francisco 22. Aikman was sacked by LB Tim Harris, however, and the visitors were forced to try for a 43-yard field goal with eight seconds left on the clock. Elliott’s kick was wide to the right and the contest remained tied at the half.

Dallas took the second half kickoff and drove 78 yards in eight plays. Smith again ran effectively and Aikman completed three passes, the biggest to WR Alvin Harper for 38 yards to the San Francisco seven. Johnston ran for a three-yard TD and, with Elliott’s point after, the Cowboys were back in front by a 17-10 margin.

The 49ers responded with a seven-play, 66-yard series that also featured a big pass play when Young connected with Rice for 36 yards to the Dallas 32. They had to settle for a field goal, and Cofer’s 42-yard boot narrowed the score to 17-13.

The Cowboys were in the midst of a long 14-play possession that covered 78 yards as the game headed into the fourth quarter. Aikman completed seven passes along the way, four of them on third down plays. That included the last, which was to Smith for a 16-yard touchdown. Elliott’s extra point put Dallas ahead by 24-13.

The next series for the 49ers ended with a Young pass being intercepted by LB Ken Norton and returned to the San Francisco 44. Smith burst up the middle for 28 yards on first down, but the Cowboys failed to add to their lead when they chose to forgo a field goal when facing fourth-and-one at the seven and Smith was stopped for no gain.

Young passed the 49ers down the field, connecting on seven throws as the home team went 93 yards in nine plays. Four were to Watters, including the first two that covered 17 and 10 yards, and the last was to Rice for a five-yard TD. Cofer converted to narrow the margin to 24-20 with 4:22 remaining in regulation.

On the first play following the ensuing kickoff, the Cowboys, choosing not to play it safe, came through with a huge play when Aikman passed to Harper, who beat the man-to-man coverage for a 70-yard gain. Three plays later, it was Aikman to WR Kelvin Martin, who dove and barely made it into the end zone for a six-yard touchdown. Elliott’s extra point attempt was blocked, but the visitors were ahead by ten points with the clock down to 3:43.

Young again came out passing, but after three completions to the Dallas 45 he was again picked off, this time by FS James Washington. It effectively finished off the 49ers as the Cowboys were able to run the clock down to 22 seconds before punting and won by a final score of 30-20.

Statistically, the game was very evenly played. Dallas outgained the 49ers by just a yard (416 to 415) and each team accumulated 24 first downs, although the Cowboys led significantly in time of possession (35:20 to 24:40). However, the 49ers turned the ball over four times, to none by the Cowboys.

Troy Aikman completed 24 of 34 passes for 322 yards and two touchdowns while giving up no interceptions. Emmitt Smith had a big day on the muddy turf as he rushed for 114 yards on 24 carries that included a TD and had 7 catches for another 59 yards and a score. Michael Irvin contributed 6 pass receptions for 86 yards and, thanks to the one long catch, Alvin Harper (pictured at right) gained 117 yards on his three receptions.

For the 49ers, Steve Young was successful on 25 of 35 throws for 313 yards and a TD but was picked off twice. He also rushed for 33 yards and a touchdown on eight attempts. Ricky Watters gained 69 yards on 11 carries and had 6 catches for 69 yards. Jerry Rice gained 123 yards on 8 pass receptions that included a touchdown.  

“We’ve played aggressive all year long,” said Coach Johnson of the Cowboys. “But that’s our style.”

“A lot of people would have been conservative, but they took chances and it worked for them,” said San Francisco’s Coach Seifert regarding the Cowboys. “They made good calls in key situations.”

Dallas went on to rout the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl. It was the first of two straight NFL Championships for the Cowboys (and three in four years), who repeated as NFC East champs in 1993. The 49ers won the NFC West and the teams met again for the conference title, with the Cowboys once more coming out on top.