The 1994 NFL season marked the third straight year the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys were head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league. The prior two seasons had seen the Cowboys beat the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game and go on to win the Super Bowl. In 1994, the 49ers turned the tables and got over the top.
San Francisco’s league-best offense was led by quarterback Steve Young, who won his second MVP award in three seasons. Jerry Rice, another all-time great, was at wide receiver. Rickey Watters in the backfield and Brent Jones at tight end added to Young’s arsenal. The offensive line had two more Pro Bowl players.
But scoring points had not been the 49ers’ problem the previous two seasons. Defense was. To that end, San Francisco went out and signed cornerback Deion Sanders. Deion merely won Defensive Player of the Honors and his cocksure attitude infused the entire roster with a new mindset. Deion joined a defense that had three other Pro Bowl players and they finished sixth in the league.
The second-best offense in the league was down in Dallas. The Cowboys could do everything well, but their signature strength was running the football. Emmitt Smith followed up his MVP year of 1993 with another 1st-team All-Pro selection here in 1994. Nate Newton anchored the league’s best offensive line, along with Mark Tuinei and Mark Stepnoski.
And you couldn’t key too much on the run, lest too much room get opened up for Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman. With Michael Irving at wide receiver, tight end Jay Novacek and Daryl Johnston all making the Pro Bowl, the Cowboys were loaded. And they could also play defense—a unit led by the league’s best strong safety, Darren Woodson, ranked third in the NFL in points allowed.
Dallas and San Francisco both ran away with their divisions and what were then the two first-round byes in each conference. The only real point of the regular season was finding out who would be the #1 seed. To that end, one of the most important decisions of the year may have been the determination to play their November 13 game in San Francisco. The 49ers won 21-14 and got homefield advantage for the playoffs.
The NFC Central didn’t have a great team, but they had plenty of good ones. The Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, and Chicago Bears were all firmly in the playoff hunt.
Minnesota had acquired Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon. He joined an offense that had more Hall of Fame talent in Cris Carter at wide receiver and Randall McDaniel up front. In a tight division race, the key for the Vikings was going 6-2 against their NFC Central rivals (Tampa Bay was also in this division, prior to the creation of the South Division in 2002). Minnesota got close Thursday night wins over Green Bay and Chicago that keyed a 10-6 record and ultimate division title.
There were three wild-card berths available, to go along with the three division winners. And the NFC Central swept them all. The Packers had Brett Favre continuing to grow, and throwing to Sterling Sharpe. The Lions were led by the great Barry Sanders in the backfield and Chris Spielman on defense. The Bears played good defense. All three teams finished 9-7.
The best divisional race in the AFC came between two old rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns in the Central. The Steelers had an elite defense. An attacking unit had 1st-team All-Pros at outside linebacker, and a Hall of Fame corner in Rod Woodson. Pittsburgh’s defense helped them overcome a mediocre offense that relied heavily on Pro Bowl tight end Eric Green.
The Browns had a head coach by the name of Bill Belichick, and his rebuilding project was bearing fruit in its fourth year. Cleveland had the league’s stingiest defense, led by free safety Eric Turner.
Head-to-head play was the difference .In the second week of the season, the Steelers beat the Browns 17-10. In the second-to-last week of the season, they met again and Pittsburgh won the rematch 17-7. The Steelers took home the top seed in the AFC bracket. The Browns would be the 4-seed, as the top wild-card.
Another compelling division race was going on in the East between two legendary coaches. Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins were led by Dan Marino behind center. Marino was protected by Richmond Webb, one of the league’s best offensive tackles. The New England Patriots, in their third year under Bill Parcells, emerged as a challenger and Ben Coates was the league’s best tight end.
This race was also decided by a head-to-head sweep. Miami outgunned New England 39-35 in the season opener. The Dolphins used their defense to win the second game at the end of October, 23-3. Miami won big prime-time games in December against playoff teams in Kansas City and Detroit. Their 10-6 mark won the AFC East. The Patriots also finished 10-6, with a victory in Chicago in the season finale putting them in the playoffs.
Kansas City was the favorite in the AFC West, with the great Joe Montana playing his final season. But it was the San Diego Chargers that came bolting out of the gate. The Chargers had a 1,300-yard rusher in big Natrone Means. They had terrific pass rushers in Leslie O’Neal and Chris Mims. And San Diego had the great Junior Seau anchoring their defense at the linebacker spot.
San Diego won their first six games. They were more mediocre over the next ten games, going 5-5. But both stretches of the season were marked by a victory over Kansas City. The Chargers won the division, and when they won a 37-34 shootout over the Steelers in the season finale, San Diego was able to snag the 2-seed. Kansas City ended up in a head-to-head showdown with the Los Angeles Raiders in the final week for the 6-seed. The Chiefs won 19-9 and ensured that Montana’s legendary career would end in the playoffs.
The playoffs began on New Year’s Eve in Lambeau Field. In a legendary defensive effort, Green Bay held Barry Sanders to (-1) rushing yards in a 16-12 win. Later that afternoon, Marino and the Dolphins brought Montana’s career to an end with a 27-17 triumph.
Belichick’s first playoff appearance as a head coach would ironically come against New England. Playing on New Year’s Day afternoon at home, the Browns beat the Patriots 20-13. The wild-card round ended later that afternoon with a surprise—the Bears went up to Minneapolis and beat the Vikings decisively, 35-18.
Divisional Round Weekend would begin and end in the AFC. The early Saturday afternoon game was from old Three Rivers Stadium. A Steelers-Browns matchup that was expected to be a battle turned into a rout. Pittsburgh won 29-9. In the late Sunday afternoon slot, a rout looked to be in the making when Miami went west and jumped out to a 21-6 lead over San Diego. But the Chargers came roaring back and took a 22-21 lead in the final minute. Marino had an answer, driving the Dolphins into field goal range. But a Pete Stoyanovich miss sent the Bolts on to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship Game.
In between these two AFC games was San Francisco and Dallas asserting themselves. On late Saturday afternoon, the 49ers blistered the Bears 44-15. Early Sunday afternoon saw the Cowboys blast the Packers 35-9. The two heavyweights were set for a third straight NFC Championship Game meeting.
Championship Sunday began with a terrific game in Pittsburgh. The Chargers got a long touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to take a 17-13 lead. In the closing moments, the Steelers drove all the way to the 3-yard line. On fourth down, Pittsburgh quarterback Neil O’Donnell attempted one final pass into the end zone. It was batted down. For the first—and thus far, only—time in franchise history, the San Diego Chargers were going to the Super Bowl.
The big showdown from Candlestick began shockingly, with a Cowboy meltdown. Dallas was turning the ball over. San Francisco was cashing in. The 49ers had a quick 21-0 lead before anyone was settled in. Dallas fought back and made it worthwhile for everyone to stay in front of their television sets. But the 49ers’ blazing start was too much to overcome. A 38-28 win sent Steve Young to his first Super Bowl as a starting quarterback.
The Super Bowl in Miami was expected to be more a coronation for San Francisco then a real confrontation. The 49ers came in as an 18-point favorite. Those expectations were accurate. Young opened the game with long TD passes to Rice and Watters. The great quarterback threw six touchdowns against zero interceptions in all. San Francisco led as much as 42-10 in the third quarter before some late scoring from San Diego made the final 49-26.
For San Francisco, it had only been five years since their most recent Super Bowl championship with Montana. But for Young, this title put the questions to rest. Yes, he could win the big one.