From the first Thursday night opener in September (anyone remember Buccaneers 31, Cowboys 29) to the last Sunday night thriller in January (will anyone ever forget Raiders 25, Chargers 22 in overtime?) and the MVP anti-vaxxer (Aaron Rodgers ring a bell?) and AFC No. 1 seed that lost to both the four-win Texans and Jets (shame on you, Titans) in between, the NFL season was wildly unpredictable.
Thankfully, Sunday's NFC Wild Card Playoff Game at AT&T Stadium will return some classic to the chaos, some familiarity to the frenzy.
Dallas Cowboys vs. San Francisco 49ers, a heritage rivalry renewed.
Though they haven't faced in each in the playoffs in 27 years, 'Boys-Niners is almost always important and sometimes iconic.
Roger Staubach's rally ... T.O. standing on the star in Texas Stadium ... Deion Sanders and Charles Haley, swapping sides ... John Madden and Pat Summerall ... The Catch, in Candlestick ... The Guarantee, in three-inch headlines ... Brass vs. papier-mache ... Tony Romo's punctured lung ... Troy Aikman's concussion ... Jimmy Johnson's "How 'Bout Them Cowboys?!" ... Bill Walsh ... Tom Landry ... Joe Montana ... Steve Young ... Emmitt Smith ... San Francisco's Team of the 1980s ... Dallas' dynasty of the 1990s ... Six NFC Championship Games, leading to five Super Bowl champions ...
To reach their July training camp goal of winning Super Bowl LVI in February, the Cowboys will likely have to survive the gauntlet of beating Tom Brady in Tampa and then Rodgers at Lambeau Field.
But first, they must beat an old friend and - if we're lucky - provide a memorable matchup forcing us to edit this legacy list of Top 10 Cowboys-49ers games.
Asked if his players appreciate how big the 49ers-Cowboys rivalry used to be, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said sadly, "No. Not at all."
A little history lesson ...
10. PUNCTURED LUNG, 9.18.11 - Tony Romo suffered cracked ribs and a punctured lung on the game's third play at Candlestick Park, sat out the third quarter to allow pain-killing meds to kick in and then returned late for one of the most heroic performances in the rivalry's history. Struggling to breathe - much less move - the Cowboys' quarterback completed 12 of 15 for 201 yards in the final quarter and overtime. He connected with former reality TV show winner Jessie Holley for a 77-yard pass to set up Dan Bailey's chip-shot field goal in the 27-24 victory.
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9. RECORD ROUT, 10.12.80 - The Cowboys' 59-14 blowout at Texas Stadium remains their highest-scoring game in franchise history and stood as the only eight-touchdown game - until last month's blowout of the Washington Football Team. In his first year taking over for icon Roger Staubach, Danny White threw four touchdowns including three to future Hall of Famer Drew Pearson. The loss sent San Francisco spiraling toward into eight-game losing streak and major changes. The following Sunday, Bill Walsh benched quarterback Steve DeBerg for a new starter named Joe Montana.
8. DAWN OF DYNASTY, 1.3.71 - The Cowboys' rising defense - led by future Ring of Honor inductees Bob Lilly, Lee Roy Jordan and Mel Renfro - suffocated the 49ers in a 17-10 NFC Championship win at Kezar Stadium. Dallas allowed only 61 yards rushing and harassed quarterback John Brodie into completing just 19 of 40 passes with two interceptions. Dallas lost Super Bowl V to the Baltimore Colts the following Sunday, the first of its five appearances in the 1970s.
7. DOOMSDAY DEFENSE, 1.2.72 - At the height of its powers, the Cowboys' "Doomsday" defense smothered the 49ers in a dominating 14-3 win in the NFC Championship Game at newly christened Texas Stadium. Jordan, future Hall of Famer Cliff Harris and defensive lineman George Andrie had interceptions as the Cowboys continued an epic defensive postseason run that saw them allow only one touchdown (holding a 20-5 lead in garbage time) and a total of 18 points in three games en route to winning Super Bowl VI.
6. THREE-PEAT THWARTED, 1.15.95 - San Francisco exacted revenge for two consecutive NFC Championship Game losses to Dallas, jumping to a 21-0 lead and hanging on for a 38-28 win at Candlestick Park. Cornerback Eric Davis jump-started the win with a 44-yard interception return for a touchdown off Cowboys' quarterback Troy Aikman, and Deion Sanders - who would join Dallas the following season - preserved it late with a breakup of a long pass to Michael Irvin after Dallas cut the lead to 10 and was driving. Two weeks later, the Niners blew out the Chargers for their fifth and final Super Bowl win.
5. ROGER'S RALLY, 12.23.72 - In the unveiling of Staubach as "Captain Comeback", the Cowboys trailed 28-13 after three quarters of this Divisional Round playoff game at new Candlestick Park. The deficit would have been insurmountable had San Francisco not missed two field goals inside 40 yards. After Tom Landry yanked veteran starter Craig Morton in favor of Staubach the former Heisman Trophy winner responded with two late touchdown passes in a span of :43, sandwiched around an onside-kick recovered by Renfro. Staubach set up the final score with a 21-yard scramble before hitting Ron Sellers with a 10-yard post pass with :52 remaining to cap the wild 30-28 win.
4. T.O. ON THE STAR, 9.24.00 - The Cowboys went 5-11 and the 49ers 6-10 in 2000, but receiver Terrell Owens - who six years later played in Dallas - made this one of the rivalry's most memorable moments by not once, but twice celebrating a touchdown in self-aggrandizing fashion in the middle of sports' most sacred star in Texas Stadium. Cowboys' safety George Teague earned his spot in franchise lore by knocking T.O. off the star after the second score, igniting a bench-clearing brawl in San Francisco's 41-24 victory.
3. 3-INCH HEADLINES, 1.23.94 - Everyone knows Jimmy Johnson made his legendary "put it in three-inch headlines" guarantee three nights before kickoff of this NFC Championship Game at Texas Stadium. But few remember that the ploy culminated a war of words between the Cowboys coach and the 49ers' George Siefert. After hearing Johnson's guarantee, Siefert said “Well, the man’s got balls, I’ll tell you that. I don’t know if they’re brass or papier-mache. We’ll find out here pretty soon.” Countered Johnson, "I can assure you, they are not papier-mache.” Despite losing Aikman to a concussion in the third quarter, backup Bernie Kosar landed the plane safely with a late touchdown pass to Alvin Harper in a 38-21 win that propelled the Cowboys to their second consecutive Super Bowl win over the Bills a week later.
2. HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?!, 1.17.93 - In a muddy, sloppy Candlestick, the Cowboys appeared on the verge of crumbling in the NFC Championship Game. Their lead was whittled to 24-20 and they were backed up on their own 21 with 4:22 remaining. But instead of playing scared, Dallas threw the ball on first down with Harper hauling in Aikman's pass for a 70-yard gain that set up Emmitt Smith's clinching touchdown in the 30-20 win. It was the moment the Cowboys became the best team in football. Johnson bellowed his signature scream later in the locker room, and a week later the Cowboys won Super Bowl XVII in The Rose Bowl.
1. THE CATCH, 1.10.82 - Trailing the Cowboys by six with under a minute to play in the NFC Championship Game, Montana rolled right and lofted one of the most famous passes in NFL history over the out-stretched arms of Cowboys' defenders Ed "Too Tall" Jones and Everson Walls and into the hands of a leaping Dwight Clark. In 2022, "The Catch" might have merely led to a dramatic loss. On Dallas' ensuing possession, White hit a streaking Drew Pearson for a gain to San Francisco's 44 with still :33 remaining. The tackle that saved a touchdown - made by cornerback Eric Wright - was clearly a "horse collar", which in today's game would have resulted in a 15-yard penalty to the 49ers' 29. San Francisco's 28-27 victory propelled it to four Super Bowls in eight years, while the Cowboys went 11 full seasons until their next appearance in a conference title game.