SAN FRANCISCO -- A new dynasty may have bloomed in the mud and the rain at Candlestick Park yesterday.
The young Dallas Cowboys completed an improbable run from 1-15 to the Super Bowl in just four years yesterday when they beat the San Francisco 49ers, 30-20, to advance to the Super Bowl on Jan. 31 against the Buffalo Bills.
"Whoa, how about them Cowboys, huh?" coach Jimmy Johnson said as he chuckled to open his news conference after the game.
The Cowboys like to think this is more than just their first trip to the Super Bowl since the 1978 season, when Tom Landry was the head coach and Roger Staubach was the quarterback.
They like to think it was as significant as the last time these two teams played in the NFC title game 11 years ago when "The Catch" by Dwight Clark propelled the 49ers to a 28-27 victory and started them on their way to the first of four trips to the Super Bowl.
Quarterback Troy Aikman, who played with the poise of a veteran in just his second playoff start, said: "I think that puts us up at another level at least in our own eyes and gives us some confidence, and, hopefully, that'll propel us on to great things in the future."
A young woman held up a banner in the stands with a tombstone and the inscription: "R.I.P. The Catch Born 1982 Buried by the 'Boys 1993."
The victory enabled the Cowboys to become the first team to make six trips to the Super Bowl. They moved ahead of the Miami Dolphins and the Washington Redskins, who've each been in five.
But the first five were made by the Tex Schramm-Landry Cowboys. This was the first one by the Jerry Jones-Johnson Cowboys.
Jones bought the team in 1989 and fired Landry, who was the only coach the team had had in the first 29 years of its existence, and hired Johnson, his college roommate at the University of Arkansas. In just four years, they're back on top.
Even though the Cowboys haven't played the Bills since 1984, they're favored by a touchdown in the Super Bowl because the NFC champion has won eight straight Super Bowls. That's why this game was dubbed The Real Super Bowl.
Johnson, who won a national title at the University of Miami, said he never doubted this moment would come, even when the team was 1-15.
"It was really just a fantastic effort and not just today and not just this week," Johnson said. "It was a fantastic effort by our guys starting back four years ago, because we were at rock bottom and they really put in a tremendous amount of time and effort. The commitment of everybody in the organization, Jerry [Jones], our coaching staff.
"I know everybody works hard and I know every organization works hard and I know people around the country, they work hard. But I could never, ever imagine anybody working as hard as the group that we had.
"Our coaching staff time and time again would demand more and more, almost to the point that we would demand what the players might not be able to give. But they responded in a positive way, and now we're one game away from where we really want to be and where we were headed back four years."
Johnson said he woke up yesterday at 4 a.m. and when he saw it was raining, he started to think about ways to cope with it.
As it turned out, the weather and the field weren't major factors. It only rained occasionally during the game, and the field that was resodded by grass guru George Toma gave the players good footing.
The footing was good enough that Emmitt Smith had 114 yards in 24 carries and a 4-yard touchdown run and caught seven passes for 59 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown catch.
As Aikman said, the Cowboys are no longer a team of the future.
"I think that's been the tag that's been placed on this football team for quite some time, that they're going to be really something in the future, and we thought that we were really pretty good as it was," Aikman said.
"After going 1-15, you realize how tough it is. To get there four years later, it's a tremendous feeling. It probably won't hit me until we touch down in L.A. [for the Super Bowl]. I think we kind of showed everybody around the league.
"I think one of the things this football team has been searching for is a little bit of respect. I know, defensively, our players have felt they haven't got the respect they deserve with the No. 1 ranking defensively.
"And, offensively, it seems that everybody is always saying that we snuck up on people. Hopefully, after today's game everyone realizes this is a team that's for real and we go out and play hard every week and we're going to be back again."
The Cowboys played like the veteran team instead of the 49ers. They recovered two fumbles and intercepted Steve Young twice. The Cowboys didn't turn the ball over once.
The teams had the same number of first downs (24), and the Cowboys had only a 1-yard edge in yardage (416-415), but the turnovers and the long drives were the difference.
It was the second time in three years that the 49ers have lost the NFC title game at Candlestick Park. They also lost to the New York Giants, 15-13, after the 1990 season.
It's also the first time the two visiting teams have won the conference title games since 1966, when the Green Bay Packers won in Dallas and the Kansas City Chiefs won in Oakland to advance to the first Super Bowl.
San Francisco coach George Seifert said, "We just didn't play well enough to win today."
The 49ers lost a chance to take charge of the game in the first half, when a 63-yard touchdown catch by Jerry Rice was called back by a holding penalty on Guy McIntyre and they twice had to settle for field-goal attempts -- Mike Cofer missed from 47 and made one from the 28 -- when drives bogged down.
With the score tied 10-10 at halftime, the Cowboys took control of the game with a pair of long, time-consuming drives on their first two possessions of the second half.
They moved 78 yards in eight plays in 4:15 to take a 17-10 lead, and, after the 49ers cut it to 17-13 with a 42-yard field goal, they moved 79 yards in 14 plays in nine minutes to take a 24-13 lead in the fourth quarter.
Johnson said: "It's just great execution. Normally, with that many plays, you're going to make a mistake, and our guys didn't make a mistake."
Ken Norton then intercepted a pass by Young, and the Cowboys advanced to the San Francisco 7 on a fourth-and-one play.
Spurning the field goal that would have made it 27-13, Johnson, who plays a gambling style, went for it, but Smith was stopped.
"Fortunately, it didn't come back to haunt us," Aikman said.
It looked as if it might when Young marched the 49ers 93 yards in nine plays to cut the deficit to 24-20 with 4:22 left in the game.
The 49ers had time for a comeback, but on the first play of Dallas' next drive, Aikman hit Alvin Harper on a slant for a 70-yard gain that set up the clinching touchdown, Kelvin Martin's 6-yard catch on third down.
The 49ers were beaten, but they weren't ready to concede they're on the decline the way the Cowboys were when they lost 11 years ago.
As wide receiver John Taylor said, "They were a better team today, but we'll be back."
How the Cowboys have fared since Jimmy Johnson became coach in 1989:
Regular season Year .. .. .. Rec. .. .. .. NFC East finish
1989 .. .. .. 1-15 .. .. .. Fifth
1990 .. .. ... 7-9 .. .. .. Fourth
1991 .. .. .. 11-5 .. .. .. Second
1992 .. .. .. 13-3 .. .. .. First
Postseason Year .. Opp. .. .. .. .. Result
1991 .. Chicago .. .. .. W, 17-13
. .. .. Detroit .. .. .. L, 38-6
1992 .. Philadelphia ... W, 34-10
. .. .. San Francisco .. W, 30-20