FRISCO, Texas – Playoffs are in the air.
Cowboys-Niners, just like old times, 3:30 p.m. Sunday at AT&T Stadium, part of the NFL's Super Wild Card Weekend.
And don't just mean back to the Cowboys' glory days of the 1990s. And not talking just the glory days of the 1980s.
And, oh wait, we must go back to the 1970s, too, those ghosts of playoffs past probably long forgotten. Come on, we're talking a half-century ago when this rivalry was born.
Who among you remember that in 1970, the first year of the NFL and AFL merger from a scheduling standpoint, the Cowboys met the San Francisco 49ers in the first NFC Championship Game, played at old Kezar Stadium, with Ray Scott and Pat Summerall doing the game on CBS and Johnny Mathis singing the national anthem?
Get this: Cowboys win 17-10, quarterback Craig Morton throwing for just 101 yards, while rookie running back Duane Thomas rushes for 143 yards and the Cowboys convert two John Brodie interceptions into touchdowns to advance to Super Bowl V.
Next year, the 1971 season, same thing, Cowboys-Niners, the beginning of this budding playoff rivalry. Cowboys winning this one, too, 14-3, in the first playoff game at Texas Stadium to advance to Super Bowl VI. The Cowboys ran for 172 yards, quarterback Roger Staubach leading the way with 55 yards, the Cowboys scoring on a 1-yard touchdown run by Thomas and a 2-yarder by Calvin Hill. After the game, former President Lydon B. Johnson visited the Cowboys locker room telling Staubach, "They should name this place Staubach Stadium." This was the advent of the Cowboys' Doomsday Defense, finishing with three interceptions, the defense leading the way to the Super Bowl victory over Miami.
And darn if these two teams didn't meet again in the first round of the 1972 playoffs, this time at new Candlestick Park. And President Johnson might have been on to something about this Staubach guy, the former Navy Heisman Trophy winner having missed the majority of the season after separating his shoulder in the preseason. But with the Cowboys down, 28-13, late in the third quarter, Cowboys head coach Tom Landry pulled Morton for Staubach, and the offensive magician did his thing, leading the Cowboys from behind to score 17 consecutive points, the final touchdown a 10-yard pass to Ron Sellers with 52 seconds left after Hall of Famer Mel Renfro recovered an onside kick. And Charlie Waters closed out the 49ers, intercepting Brodie.
So, while most remember the 1981 NFC title game between these two teams, San Francisco winning, 28-27, on the famed "Catch," and for sure there are great memories of the two teams playing in three consecutive NFC title games from 1992-94, the Cowboys winning the first two of those, these three consecutive matchups in the '70s are the reasons why this rivalry first came into being.
- Say What: Saw this analysis of Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs in the San Jose Mercury News: "Maybe [San Francisco head coach Kyle] Shanahan will move his (offensive) attention outside and try to give Dallas cornerback Trevon Diggs something to think about. The second-year Alabama player led the NFL in interceptions this past season with 11." (OK, timeout: Not just 11 interceptions but the most by any NFL player since Cowboys should-be Hall of Fame cornerback Everson Walls had 11 in his rookie year of 1981, 40 darn years ago. OK, continue.) "But when (Diggs) didn't make the interception, he was a downright bad corner." (Hold it: My second timeout. Diggs also led the Cowboys with 21 pass breakups. OK, continue.) "Diggs is worthless against the run – the Niners always want to run it outside the numbers, but in this game, they'll be even more eager." (Timeout, my third: Diggs finished just his second NFL season with 56 tackles, seventh on the team. Continue.) "He'll also give up what he takes away – though I'm not sure he wins that battle. Turnovers are the lifeblood of wins in football, but Diggs' risk-reward style is something I could imagine the Niners offense targeting with their excellent receivers. I think it could be a winning strategy." I agree, think the Niners should try him, early and often. See Washington's first offensive play that second time round this year.
- Thanks For the Memories: Shanahan, the 42-year-old son of long-time NFL coach Mike Shanahan, has vivid memories of those 1990s Cowboys-Niners playoff games since his dad was a San Francisco assistant coach for those three playoff matchups. And now here he is, head coach of the Niners taking on the Cowboys for the eighth time in a playoff game. "I think that's as cool as it gets because that's the coolest part of my childhood growing up, I feel like. It was seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade, '92, '93, '94, every single year. I thought we were the best team in the league. … I remember being on that sideline and just watching how good the Cowboys were and it was unbelievable. And the next year, going to Dallas for the home-field advantage. And we all know what happened there. That one wasn't even close." Good times.
- Rivalry II: And for Dan Quinn, here is why if a team ever gets him in a room to interview for its head coaching job, he's a goner. "I'm damn fired up, man," he says of Cowboys-Niners playoffs Chapter 8. "Are you kidding me? The early '90s Dallas-Niners, some of the championship games, for me, coming up and watching those ones, I can hear [John] Madden and [Pat] Summerall talking it through. My first Dallas and Niners playoff game, I'm pretty fired up to do it, man. It's exciting." Gets your blood boiling, too, no?
- Bully, Bully: Cowboys lionbacker Micah Parsons – I see our cute little nickname from at least a month ago is catching on – was asked on Wednesday, because of San Francisco's physical style of offense running the ball, if "you can bully a lion." His response goes like this: "No, you can't. It's actually funny you say that. I was having fun with the guys, and I was telling them 'I'm from Harrisburg (Pa.), where the bullies get bullied,' you know what I'm saying? There is a bully in every gym. There is a bully everywhere you go, but at one point it's going to take someone to stand up, and you fight. And I've never backed down from a challenge. So, I would never say you could bully a lion … ever." Never!
- Scouting Report: No, not on San Francisco, but on that of head referee Alex Kemp, who the NFL has assigned to Sunday's game. Now, these are all-star crews for the playoff games, but Kemp's crew had the Cowboys' first game this year against Washington. For the season, that crew flagged teams 195 times in 16 games, seventh most in the league, 85 on the home teams and 110 on the road teams. In that game vs. WTF, the Dallas Cowboys committed seven accepted penalties for 60 yards. They were flagged a total of 12 times. The Washington Football Team committed seven accepted penalties for 65 yards. They were flagged a total of 11 times. Five times the crew called defensive offside, three taunting penalties, but just two offensive holding calls. Better keep your words and motions to yourself.
- Playoff Shorts: Cowboys are promoting Sunday's game as a "white-out," which looks cool, but only if Cowboys ticket holders aren't into commerce, turning AT&T into a Red Sea of San Francisco fans by selling off their ticket, as what happened at SoFi for this past Sunday's Rams-Niners game. Even Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford admitted it was "a tough environment for us to communicate in," some saying the Rams had to go to a silent count on offense at home … You know, Antonio Brown claims his antics leaving mid-game were spurred on by an injured ankle, but maybe more so it was his pocketbook hurting when he wasn't getting enough action, realizing he was about to miss out on nearly $1 million in incentives for failing to reach 50 catches, 600 yards and five touchdowns. Each of those markers would have earned him $333,333. He finished the season with 42 catches for 545 yards and four touchdowns. Big ouch … My vote for Coach of the Year, if I had one, goes to Rich Bisaccia, the former Cowboys special teams coordinator, guiding the Raiders as interim head coach through a season full of turmoil into the playoffs, becoming the first interim coach taking a team into the playoffs since these guys: Wally Lemm (Oilers) 1961, Hamp Pool (Rams) 1952 and Hunk Anderson/Luke Johnsos (Bears) 1942 after George Halas left midseason for World War II.
And this start to the playoffs' last word goes to Quinn, a bottom line guy whose name, along with that of Kellen Moore's, keeps coming up for several of the growing number of NFL head coach openings, now numbering seven with the Giants moving on from Joe Judge. They're looking for their fourth head coach since Tom Coughlin's 12-year reign from 2004-2015, none of the other three, Ben McAdoo, Pat Shurmur or Judge lasting more than two seasons.
Remember, Quinn grew up a huge Giants fans just west of the Hudson in New Jersey, yet he continues to say he's not interested in any type of interviews until the season is completed and reiterated his position on Monday.
"It's nice to hear if someone is interested," Quinn began. "That's not lost on me. … But there's really nothing to add on my end. There's not a lot of time management or anything that has to go into mine, other than kicking ass and being right where my feet are. Hopefully, we can just talk Niners today because that's where my heart and my head are moving forward."
Uh, great answer.