49ers, Cowboys meeting at crossroads Rising Dallas tries to finish S.F. reign

January 17, 1993|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- It's not enough that it pits the two teams with the best records in the Bog By the Bay with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

It's not enough that it's being called the real Super Bowl because the NFC champion has won eight straight Super Bowls.

What adds an extra dimension to today's NFC title game between the San Francisco 49ers (15-2) and the Dallas Cowboys (14-3) at Candlestick Park is that it could be a moment for the passing of the torch.

There's a chance this could be time when the Team of the '90s grabs the championship torch from the Team of the '80s.

This could be the same type of watershed game these two teams played 11 years ago in the NFC title game when The Catch by Dwight Clark started San Francisco on the road to four Super Bowl titles and began the decline of the Cowboys.

Now the roles are reversed. The Cowboys are the youngest team in the league, one that could be on the verge of a dynasty. The 49ers are the team on top trying to show they can keep winning in the '90s the way they did in the '80s. They're two victories from becoming the first team to win five Super Bowls.

There are a lot of subplots to this game. Both teams try to follow in the footsteps of legends. Steve Young is trying to emerge from Joe Montana's shadow and show he can take the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Jimmy Johnson, the Cowboys coach, is trying to show that he can pick up where Tom Landry left off when the Cowboys were America's Team.

That's more than enough for a garden-variety title game. The comparisons with the 1981 game have taken it to a different level. You'll be seeing the Clark catch from all different angles on the pre-game shows today.

There's been so much reminiscing about the 1981 game -- whichattracted the largest TV audience ever for a non-Super Bowl game before cable TV diluted the audience -- that today's players have gotten tired of it. The Dallas Morning News devoted two full pages to recollections of the game one day last week.

"This game has nothing to do with history," said running back Emmitt Smith. "When we take the field, we're not going to be thinking about the past. What happened a decade ago is dead and gone. It has no bearing on the game or the task at hand. I do get tired of hearing about it.

"They've got to understand that Dwight Clark won't be out there catching the ball and that Joe Montana [the only player from that game who'll be in uniform today] is a backup quarterback. It's two totally different teams out there on the field. It's even different coaching staffs. All that happened in the past means exactly nothing."

The comparisons, though, are intriguing. If the Cowboys are destined to become the Team of the '90s, they couldn't pick a better place to start than to beat the 49ers on their home field.

There's no doubt that Johnson thinks the Cowboys are on the verge of doing great things.

When they routed the Philadelphia Eagles, 34-10, last week in a divisional playoff game, he virtually brushed it off.

"It's a big win," he said. "But we have bigger wins coming."

There are only two left for Johnson to win that are bigger -- the NFC title game and the Super Bowl.

But Johnson shrugs off the idea that this game is going to set the tempo for the next decade.

"I don't buy [the theory that] one game makes teams go this way or that way," he said. "Drafting players, signing players, that's what makes teams go here or there. A lot of things happen between January and July, and what happens then, not before, will dictate what happens after July."

But games like this aren't played in a vacuum. A young team has to learn how to win games like this. When it doesn't, doubt sets in. The Houston Oilers are an example of a talented team that hasn't gotten over that hump.

The Dallas fans with long memories remember another history lesson -- the back-to-back 1966-1967 title-game losses to the Green Bay Packers that cost the Cowboys a berth in the first two Super Bowls.

The losses were so devastating that the Cowboys were eliminated in the playoffs the next two years by the Cleveland Browns before finally going to the Super Bowl in 1970 (and losing to the Baltimore Colts) and winning it all in 1971.

A game at this level can make a difference, and the 49ers' edge is their experience. It's their fourth appearance in the NFC title game in the last five years. They've proven they know how to win them (1988 and 1989) and they also know what it's like to lose.

In 1990, they were headed toward their third straight Super Bowl when Roger Craig's late fumble set up Matt Bahr's field goal and the New York Giants' 15-13 victory.

By contrast, this group of Cowboys hasn't faced a challenge like this.

Receiver Mike Sherrard, a former Cowboy, said: "It's going to be a test for them. It's their first time in a championship game and most of our guys on the offense have at least one Super Bowl ring. Maybe they can do it. Maybe not. We'll find out."

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