San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young had known a lot of success since taking over the reins from the legendary Joe Montana, including winning the MVP award in 1992. But Young had not gotten the 49ers to the Super Bowl, with two consecutive conference championship games losses to the Dallas Cowboys. In a town where Montana had made big-game victories a part of life, that wasn’t going to cut it. The 1994 NFL playoffs had to be different.
Young had a big year in 1994 and again won the MVP award. The 49ers and the Cowboys were seen as far and above not just the NFC, but the league in general. The biggest game of the regular season was their November 13 meeting in San Francisco.
On a late Sunday afternoon, Young wasn’t spectacular, but he was efficient, going 12/21 for 183 yards and no interceptions. By contrast, Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman broke the 300-yard barrier, but threw three interceptions. The mistakes were the difference in a 21-14 San Francisco win that settled the #1 seed in the NFC.
San Francisco met the Chicago Bears in the divisional round of the playoffs. After spotting the Bears a field goal, the 49ers’ balanced attack completely took over. It was 30-3 by halftime and ended 44-15. Dallas was no less impressive in dispatching the Green Bay Packers the following afternoon.
Now the 49ers and Cowboys readied themselves for their third straight meeting in the NFC Championship Game. It was the first time since the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders rivalry of 1974-76 that the same teams had played for a Super Bowl berth in three consecutive seasons and the Cowboys were gunning for a historic third straight Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The game couldn’t have started better for San Francisco. The Niners got three turnovers in the first quarter and turned it into a 21-0 lead. But the Cowboys came chipping back, and trailed 38-28 and were driving midway through the fourth quarter.
Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman looked for receiver Michael Irvin deep. San Francisco corner Deion Sanders, whose free-agent signing had been seen as crucial in improving the Niner defense and its general moxie was in coverage. The pass fell incomplete. Dallas coach Barry Switzer felt there was interference, failed to control himself and drew a 15-yard penalty. The drive, and the game were effectively ended.
For all practical purposes, Steve Young was over the hump. All that remained was an anti-climactic Super Bowl against a San Diego Chargers team that was a nice story, but absolutely no match for the 49ers. Las Vegas made San Francisco a hefty 19-point favorite.
With Young this close to the prize, there was no letdown. He opened the Super Bowl with a quick touchdown strike to Jerry Rice, the first of a Super Bowl record six scoring passes the Niner quarterback would throw on this day. The final score was 49-26 and Young got his crowning moment with game MVP honors. But he, his team, the league and the entire nation, knew that the biggest moment had come in the win over Dallas.