IRVING, Texas -- Before laying the myth of the San Francisco 49ers to rest for another season, let us not forget their great comeback.
The Dallas Cowboys' Kevin Smith approached Jerry Rice in the end zone before the game yesterday to offer best wishes.
Rice made an obscene gesture.
What the comeback lacked in originality, it made up for in relevance.
Despite what history will show, the 38-21 victory by the Cowboys over the 49ers in the NFC championship game occurred long before the opening kickoff. How about, say, on Friday.
That's when the 49ers were privately enraged by Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson's victory guarantee.
That's when they realized they were not playing another predictable NFL team, but the University of Miami.
That's when they lost the one thing that had separated this organization from all others during the past decade.
That's when they lost their cool.
"When this game started," admitted tackle Steve Wallace, "we were really angry. We were ready to get it on."
And so they did. The pre-game end zone shoving match that was caused by Rice's gesture was only the start of an afternoon where they were handcuffed by their emotions.
L * They committed five cheap shots in the first nine minutes.
* Overzealous quarterback Steve Young threw a ball so hard, it bounced off the wonderful pair of hands belonging to John Taylor and led to a game-turning interception.
* Cornerback Eric Davis tried to leap into a highlight film with a daring interception of his own, but instead was burned for a game-clinching touchdown.
The 49ers were still angry afterward, ripping the Cowboys for a lack of professionalism.
That is, after they extracted their heads from their hands.
"We always try to win with class, and a few other NFL teams win with class, but it was different today," Wallace said. "A lot of the things these guys did, we would never do."
He was speaking of the Cowboys' frequent taunting and dancing, not of their four touchdowns in five first-half drives.
"But that's OK, as long as they keep winning, I guess they can keep doing whatever they want," Wallace said. "But we have long memories."
So do the Cowboys. Some of them still remember when the 49ers were as much arrogance as talent.
They were most proud that their ability to get inside the 49ers blocking scheme was only surpassed by their ability to get inside their heads.
"Whoever was talking about that, I hope they keep talking," said Michael Irvin, Cowboys receiver. "Because it worked."
Something worked on Rice. He caught only six passes, none longer than 23 yards.
"I think mentally, we got into Rice's head this week," Cowboys safety Darren Woodson said.
Rice acknowledged: "Yeah, they got under my hair a little bit. ... I thought what Johnson said was insane."
And something worked against the 49ers' veteran offensive line, which allowed four sacks and numerous other pressures on Young.
Of Johnson's pre-game guarantee, 49ers center Jesse Sapolu said: "It was all part of their strategy. You didn't see him saying that against the Green Bay Packers last week, did you?
"If you're not sure if you can win, make a statement like that, see what happens. Well, it worked."
And something certainly worked on Young.
"I think when Jimmy made his statement, he was thinking, 'Well, Steve is playing pretty well, maybe I'll try to get at him a little bit,' " Young said. "That's something you do in college."
Perhaps Young forgets that Johnson was a national champion at that level, too.
Not that it worked, but Young was so upset immediately afterward that he had difficulty speaking.
"I am really trying to keep a stiff upper lip and all that," he said.
He later added: "I would never believe we would come down here and get beat by a score like this. I would never believe it."