4. 1981 NFC Championship Game – “The Catch”
Not every painful loss on this list has happened in the past 20 years, even though the last 20 have clearly been the most devastating for Cowboys fans. However, this game was not only one of the most painful losses, but it was also the end of a generation of dominance.
The 1981 season was the beginning of the end for the Tom Landry-led Cowboys. This was perhaps the biggest sustained era of success ever for the boys in blue, as this season marked their 16th consecutive winning season under Landry.
In just the second season with Danny White as the quarterback, the Cowboys were poised and desperate to recapture the relevance that led them to the moniker of America’s Team in the 1970s. After a 12-4 season and an absolute thrashing of the Buccaneers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, the Cowboys were set to square off against the up-and-coming 49ers in the Conference Championship.
The 49ers, led by third-year QB Joe Montana, were 13-3, marking their first winning season since 1976.
The game was a nail-biter all the way through, but the Cowboys were leading 27-21 with only 58 seconds left on the clock. Joe Montana had the 49ers at the Cowboys’ six-yard line and he was facing a third and short situation.
Montana snapped the ball and rolled to his right. The ‘Boys brought on big pressure causing the 49ers QB to throw a pass that most would team “too high” for his receiver. Seemingly out of nowhere, Dwight Clark leaped into the air to catch the ball in the back of the endzone, causing the Cowboys to lose the game 28-27.
The reason this game stung so badly was that not only did the 49ers go on to win the Super Bowl, but this game also vaulted forward the 49ers’ dynasty.
San Francisco would go on to become the team of the 1980s winning four Super Bowls with Montana at the helm, quickly making the Cowboys’ greatness of the 1970s a thing of the past. The Cowboys would make the conference championship again the following strike-shortened year, but they didn’t put up a very strong showing. The Cowboys would not reach the Conference Championship again until the 1990s and they closed out the 1980s with four consecutive losing seasons. It’s a sad fact that this game essentially ended the Landry era of dominance.