In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
The San Francisco 49ers edge the Dallas Cowboys 28-27 in the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park to earn a trip to Super Bowl XVI. The game was decided by a leaping catch by Dwight Clark on a pass from Joe Montana in the back of the end zone with 51 seconds left. It was the first time the 49ers made the Super Bowl, beginning a dynasty.
The San Francisco 49ers had a breakout season in 1981, making the playoffs for the first time in nine years under Coach Bill Walsh. Leading the efforts for the Niners was Joe Montana in his third NFL season and the play of rookie safety Ronnie Lott. Early on, it did not appear to be a magical season for San Francisco as they lost two of their first three games, coming off three straight seasons of double-digit losses, including a 6-10 record in 1980. However, the 49ers only lost one game the remainder of the season, finishing with a record of 13-3; they would beat the New York Giants 38-24 in the Divisional Playoff.
The Dallas Cowboys led by Tom Landry had been for more than a decade, one of the NFL’s premier teams as they only missed the playoffs once in 16 seasons posting a winning record every season since 1966 as they won the NFC East with a record of 12-4, as they looked for a record sixth Super Bowl appearance. The Cowboys were also looking to avenge a 45-14 loss in San Francisco in Week 6. On their way to the rematch, the Cowboys blanked the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 38-0.
It was the third time the Cowboys and 49ers played in the NFC Championship. A decade earlier, the 49ers lost back-to-back heartbreaker to Dallas in 1970 and 1971. They also met in the 1972 Divisional Round, with the Cowboys again besting the 49ers 30-28 with 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter of a game at Candlestick Park.
The game started well for the 49ers, who scored on their first drive, with Freddie Solomon catching an eight-yard pass from Joe Montana. After the Cowboys answered with a 44-yard field goal by Rafael Septien, San Francisco committed the first miscue of the game as Bill Ring fumbled at the 29, setting up the Cowboys deep in Niners' territory. Dallas would cash in the error as Danny White completed a 26-yard touchdown pass to Tony Hill. In the second quarter, the Niners committed a second turnover when Everson Walls intercepted a pass from Montana in the end zone. The Cowboys failed to take advantage this time, and the 49ers responded by taking back the lead as Dwight Clark reeled in a 20-yard touchdown pass. The Cowboys quickly answered as Tony Dorsett capped an 80-yard drive with a five-yard run to take a 17-14 lead into halftime.
The Cowboys continued to control the turnover battle in the third quarter as Randy White picked off Joe Montana, deep the Dallas territory. However, Bobby Leopold got the ball right back for San Francisco, picking off Danny White. The Niners would take the second chance as the lead changed hands again, with Johnny Davis catching a two-yard throw for Montana. The Cowboys would cut the deficit to 21-20 early in the fourth quarter as Rafael Septien booted a 22-yard field goal. The Cowboys would quickly get the ball back as Everson Walls pounced on a fumble by Walt Easley. This led to the Cowboys taking a 27-21 lead as Doug Cosbie caught a 21-yard touchdown pass from White. Everson Walls continued to play havoc when the 49ers got the ball back, with his second pick of the game, putting the game in peril for the 49ers faithful. However, the Niners' defense held stout and forced a punt with five minutes left.
The 49ers got the ball back on their 11-yard line with 4:54 left, beginning a drive that would define a franchise. The drive faced a big test early, as Montana connected with Solomon a critical third-down conversion. The 49ers worked the ball down to the Dallas six-yard line, facing third and four with 58 seconds on the clock. Before the two-minute warning, the Cowboys gave the Niners a first down by jumping offside on a third-down play. The blitz got in on Joe Montana, who scrambled back to the sideline, with Ed “Too Tall” Jones closing in with Larry Bethea and D.D. Lewis. Looking to avoid the sack, Montana looked to throw the ball out the back of the end zone. In the back of the end zone, Dwight Clark ran with Walls covering, saw the ball floating his way, and made a spectacular catch while leaping in the air in the end zone. The play immortalized as the catch would become one of the signature pictures in NFL history. Ray Wersching would complete the extra point to give San Francisco a 28-27 lead with 51 seconds left.
After the catch, the Cowboys still had a chance to drive down and win the game with a field goal. The Cowboys' drive got a big boost when Drew Pearson nearly broke away on a catch at midfield, but Eric Wright made a game-saving tackle, pulling Pearson down by one hand. On the next play, Lawrence Pillers ended the game with a strip-sack of Danny White that was recovered by Jim Stuckey.
The 49ers would win Super Bowl XVI in the Pontiac Silverdome by beating the Cincinnati Bengals 26-21. It would be the first for four Super Bowls that San Francisco would win in the decade as Joe Montana won the first of three Super Bowl MVP awards. It would be the second of three straight NFC Championship Game losses for Dallas, who would begin fading from their glory days as they failed to make the Super Bowl during the ’80s after five appearances in the 1970s.