Cowboys, 49ers face off again in storied rivalry

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Jason Garrett and Jim Harbaugh were NFL quarterbacks during some of the best days in the storied Dallas-San Francisco rivalry. Garrett witnessed it firsthand with the Cowboys, Harbaugh watched from afar.

The glory days of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Roger Craig, Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith.

Epic NFC title matchups for a shot at the Super Bowl.

Now, Garrett and Harbaugh are two young coaches trying to make their own marks. Their teams face off Sunday at Candlestick Park in different positions: Harbaugh's 49ers riding high after a commanding 33-17 win against division rival Seattle, and Garrett and his Cowboys trying to bounce back after blowing a late 14-point lead in a 27-24 loss to the Jets.

Back in the day, everybody enjoyed beating "America's Team."

"I thought those were unbelievable games to be a part of," Garrett said. "Clearly one of the best rivalries of that generation, maybe any generation. Both those teams were so good during the 90s and it was also fun getting a chance to play against those guys. They had a team littered with Hall of Famers, as did we. Each of those teams won Super Bowls. You're really getting the best of the best. I think each of the sides really enjoyed the competition playing against each other. The games were always great."

Garrett played on three Super Bowl winners and won six division titles with Dallas. The Cowboys made him interim head coach midway through 2010 to take over a group that began 1-7 but bounced back to go 5-3 the rest of the way.

Garrett has reached out to fellow Dallas alums to help build the Cowboys back up, while Harbaugh had already established a solid Bay Area fan base after turning around the Stanford program right up the freeway from his current office.

He has his work cut out for him turning around this once-proud franchise.

These teams have faced off in the NFC championship game six times, with the winner going on to capture a Super Bowl title in five of those.

"Remember two great football teams going at it," Harbaugh said. "It seemed like yearly, like the way the Cowboys and the Dolphins used to go at it and the Steelers and the Packers, those two teams were ones that were meeting at the end of the year to decide who was going to the Super Bowl."

They met in three straight NFC title games from 1992-94, with Dallas beating the Niners on the way to back-to-back Super Bowl wins in 1992 and '93 - then San Francisco returned the favor in '94 en route to the title. The Cowboys won it all again in 1995, getting through Green Bay that year.

Of the Cowboys' 14 NFC championship games, the six meetings with the Niners are their most against any opponent. Dallas is 4-2 in those games.

Perhaps the most memorable Cowboys-49ers matchup came in the 1981 NFC championship game. The Niners trailed 27-21 with less than 5 minutes to play and Montana drove his team 89 yards for the go-ahead score - a high pass to the back of the end zone on third down that Dwight Clark leapt to retrieve in his fingertips for a touchdown with 51 seconds left.

"The Catch" as it so famously became known. It's considered among the greatest moments in NFL history.

"I obviously came out after the stuff in the old days but I know I love reading about the game and hearing about the history," Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said. "I know all about the great games in the 80s and 90s. Hopefully we'll be able to resurrect that one day."

Sunday's game hardly can compete with some of the history-making performances of the past. But players on each side still appreciate this longtime rivalry and the history behind it.

Quarterback Alex Smith and San Francisco's offense likely will have to do a lot more this time. The 49ers beat the defending NFC West champion Seahawks in Week 1 getting Smith's short touchdown run, four field goals by David Akers and two long kick returns by Ted Ginn Jr. - a 102-yard kickoff return for a TD and then a 55-yard punt return for a score.

"I feel like it's a Monday night game. We get to play the Dallas Cowboys. Everybody loves the Dallas Cowboys," 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said. "It's going to be a good one."

Romo is ready to make things right for his team after last week's collapse. He arrived home Monday morning at 5:15 a.m., then was back at work by 10 a.m. preparing for the 49ers.

Romo went 23 of 36 for 342 yards and two touchdowns in Week 1 but lost a crucial fumble that aided New York's comeback.

"I have to come out and play my best game this week and make sure that what happened last week doesn't happen again, and I'll do that," he said.

The Cowboys will stand for nothing less than getting back on track with a key road win - an 0-2 start wouldn't be acceptable. The 49ers haven't been to the playoffs or had a winning record since 2002.

Dallas, meanwhile, hasn't dropped its first two games in consecutive seasons since 2000-01.

"I'm pretty sure they'll be pretty mad," 49ers defensive tackle Ray McDonald said. "I only saw highlights of it. Dallas is a good team and they're going to come here ready to fight."


AP Sports Writer Antonio Gonzalez contributed to this story.


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