The 1995 NFL season was the last of a four-year stretch where the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers were at the railhead of professional football. The Cowboys won Super Bowls in 1992 and 1993. The 49ers won in 1994. All three seasons, the two superpowers played in the NFC Championship Game. They were again the top two teams in the league for the 1995 regular season, but even as the Cowboys were winning a third title in four years, a playoff upset in San Francisco foreshadowed a transition into a new era.
If Dallas and San Fran were at the railhead, then Deion Sanders might be referred to as the railhead of the railhead. Deion had joined the 49ers on a one-year contract in 1994 and keyed their championship run. With an offer of $35 million, Dallas owner Jerry Jones got Sanders to switch sides and join the Cowboys for 1995.
Deion joined a secondary that already included All-Pro strong safety Darren Woodson. The Cowboy offense was loaded. The “Big Three” of quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin were all headed for the Hall of Fame. Nate Newton was the best guard in the NFL and keyed a powerful offensive line.
San Francisco had a Hall of Fame combo of their own, with quarterback Steve Young and wide receiver Jerry Rice. The 49ers had three 1st-team All-Pros on defense, with linebacker Ken Norton, free safety Merton Hanks and corner Eric Davis. But in addition to Deion, San Francisco had suffered another free agent loss when running back Ricky Watters jumped to Philadelphia. The 49ers were slow out of the gate and playing mediocre football halfway through the season.
Dallas was anything but mediocre. The Cowboys came out blazing. The first part of their season was highlighted by wins over playoff-bound teams from Green Bay and San Diego. When Dallas blew out a good Philadelphia team, 34-12, on the first Monday in November, the outcome of the season seemed all but preordained.
But six days later, San Francisco came to Dallas for the regular season showdown and delivered a decisive 38-20 win. The entire trajectory of the season changed. The 49ers blew out playoff-bound Miami on a Monday Night. Even though the Cowboys got a nice win over the AFC”s top seed, the Kansas City Chiefs, on Thanksgiving, the favorites were starting to falter.
In the 14th game of the year, at Philadelphia, Dallas lost an unforgettable game. In a tie game, facing 4th-and-1, deep in their own end. Emmitt was stuffed. In amazing display of good fortune, there was a timeout on the field and the down had to be replayed. Dallas went for it again. Emmitt got stuffed again. The Eagles kicked a field goal and won. Philly would make the playoffs. Cowboy head coach Barry Switzer got crushed in the media. And the 49ers now had inside track to the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs.
But there was time for another plot twist. In the season finale at Atlanta, San Francisco lost 28-27. The Falcons had played—or, more accurately, passed—their way into the final wild-card spot behind quarterback Jeff George and three 1,000-yard receivers in Eric Metcalf, Bert Emanuel and Terance Mathis. Dallas won the next night in Arizona and reclaimed homefield advantage for the playoffs.
The old NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North, plus Tampa Bay) would supply the final two teams for the playoffs. The four traditional teams—Packers, Lions, Bears, and Vikings–had all made the postseason in 1994. They were all competitive again this year, each team finishing .500 or above. But it would be the teams with the biggest stars—Green Bay and Detroit–that made it on to play in January.
Brett Favre was in his fourth season behind center for the Packers and this was his breakout campaign. Favre won the first of three straight MVP awards. His signature regular season performance came in November against Chicago. On a bad ankle, Favre threw five touchdown passes in a 35-28 win. The Green Bay defense was led by the great lineman, Hall of Famer Reggie White.
Detroit had the league’s most explosive running back in Barry Sanders. Herman Moore was one of the game’s top wide receivers, and Lomas Brown one of its premier offensive tackles. The Lions finished second in the league in points scored, trailing only the 49ers, and covered for an average defense.
By the season finale, Green Bay and Detroit were both in the playoffs. The division title came down to a Packer home game with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Clinging to a 24-19 lead late in the game, Green Bay fans watched in delight as Pittsburgh’s Yancey Thigpen dropped a wide open fourth down pass in the end zone in the closing seconds. The Packers were division champs. The Lions were the 5-seed.
That drop in Lambeau was one of the few things Thigpen did wrong in a Pro Bowl season. And his team was motivated by the slogan “Three More Yards”, a reminder of the distance that kept them out of the Super Bowl a year earlier. Thigpen was the star of a top 5 offense. Dermontti Dawson was the league’s best center. And an attacking defense, keyed by Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene at outside linebacker, managed to cover for an early injury to Hall of Fame corner Rod Woodson.
The Steelers finished 11-5 and ran away with a division title. An anticipated AFC Central race with Cleveland did not materialize. In the saddest and most stunning story of the year, Browns owner Art Modell announced in midseason that his franchise was moving to Baltimore. A good Cleveland team fell apart from that point forward. Home games became a mix of protest and depression. And in one of the finer tributes of the season, when Cleveland went to Pittsburgh for a Monday Night game on November 13, Steeler fans wore orange armbands to support their abandoned rival fans.
In the AFC West ,the San Diego Chargers were the team that had denied Pittsburgh the AFC title a year ago. The Bolts made it back to the playoffs behind the NFL’s sixth-best defense and linebacker Junior Seau. But offensive problems made this year’s San Diego edition a borderline 9-7 team. The class of the division would be in Kansas City.
Chiefs head coach Marty Schottenheimer turned veteran journeyman quarterback Steve Bono into a Pro Bowler. Marcus Allen was 35-years-old, but still had gas in the tank. Kimble Anders was a versatile back who could also catch passes. And the defense was led by a trio of Pro Bowlers—the great outside linebacker Derrick Thomas, defensive end Neil Smith and tackle Dan Saleaumua. The KC defense allowed the fewest points of any team in the league. The Chiefs went 13-3 and snagged the #1 seed in the AFC bracket.
The AFC East didn’t have a great team, but it had three good ones who made the playoffs and some interesting storylines. The Buffalo Bills had the Defensive Player of the Year in linebacker Bryce Paup. And the Bills were still getting production from their own Big Three—quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas and wide receiver Andre Reed. This wasn’t the same powerhouse that went to four straight Super Bowls from 1990-93, but they won 10 games and claimed the division crown.
Miami’s legendary head coach, Don Shula, was feeling some pressure to get to a Super Bowl. Dan Marino was getting up in years and former Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson was angling for the coaching job from the safety of the Fox-TV studio. Miami made the postseason, but only finished 9-7.
The Indianapolis Colts were a nice story. A guy named Jim Harbaugh was a 32-year-old quarterback and he lifted a team that was otherwise fueled by a rising star, 22-year-old running back Marshall Faulk, to a 9-7 mark of their own and a playoff trip.
Buffalo and Miami opened up Wild-Card Weekend in Rich Stadium. The Bills won decisively, 37-22, and ended Shula’s career. Later that day, Philadelphia shocked everyone with their offensive explosion against red-hot Detroit, blowing out the Lions 58-37. The following day, Green Bay eliminated Atlanta 37-20, while Indianapolis went to San Diego and won 35-20.
The wild-card games hadn’t offered a lot, and when Pittsburgh opened up Divisional Round Weekend with a 40-21 handling of Buffalo the playoffs had yet to see anything really interesting. That was about to change.
Green Bay was visiting San Francisco for the late afternoon game on Saturday. With the world waiting on the fourth straight Cowboys-49ers NFC Championship Game, Brett Favre decided to continue his coming out party as a big-time star. The Packers stunned the country by jumping out to a 21-0 lead and then managed their way to a 27-17 upset. An era was at least partially over.
Dallas took care of their own business on early Sunday afternoon, beating up Philadelphia 30-21. That led to the next big surprise of the weekend. On a frigid cold day in KC, no one could do much of anything. That includes kick the football. Kansas City kicker Lin Elliot missed three field goals, the last in the closing seconds. Indianapolis pulled a stunning 10-7 upset. Schottenheimer suffered many painful playoff losses in his otherwise sterling career, and this one had to be the worst.
On Championship Sunday, Pittsburgh spent much of the afternoon looking ready to give away a golden opportunity. The Steelers trailed the Colts 16-13 late in the fourth quarter. A touchdown passes, aided by a controversial sidelines catch, put Pittsburgh in front. Then a last desperate pass into the end zone by Harbaugh was nearly caught before hitting the ground. The Steelers had won. They got their “Three More Yards”.
The late afternoon marquee was Dallas and Green Bay and the underdog Packers put up a heckuva fight, taking a 27-24 lead into the fourth quarter. But the Cowboy offensive line, combined with Emmitt Smith, took it over and won 38-27. The Dallas postseason revival continued.
So, it was down to Dallas and Pittsburgh, playing out in Tempe. These two franchises had played in two classic Super Bowls in the 1970s. This one wasn’t a classic, but it was a pretty good game and—unfortunately for Steeler fans, had a couple of memorable moments. Quarterback Neil O’Donnell had miscommunications with his receivers on two different occasions in the fourth quarter and threw the ball directly to Dallas corner Larry Brown. Both picks broke Steeler momentum at a time they only trailed by three points.
The Cowboys finally salted away a 27-17 win. Brown had the easiest MVP award ever won in any sport. Dallas had a dynasty. And the NFL had gotten some signs that they were moving to a new era.