With the parity in today’s NFL, it’s almost impossible to predict which teams will be playing in late January. For example, before the season very few people thought last season's NFC championship game would be between the San Francisco 49ers, who fired their coach after finishing 6-10 in 2010, and the New York Giants, the NFC’s fourth seed in the playoffs.
That lack of a dominant team or conference is neither positive nor negative, it's simply the state of today’s league.
Two decades ago, however, that wasn’t the case.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s the NFC was clearly the superior conference, winning 13 straight Super Bowls from 1985 to 1997 and 15 of 16 dating back to 1982. Two teams accounted for more than half of those championships the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. Those two, along with the Chicago Bears, the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants formed a powerful NFC elite.
"You relish playing those teams; I miss that when I look at how the league is now," said former 49ers offensive lineman and four-time Super Bowl champion Jesse Sapolu. "If you look back on it ... the NFC won 15 of 16 Super Bowls in a row. That’s unheard of today."
The Cowboys and the 49ers formed the best rivalry of the NFC’s "Golden Years," and some say the best rivalry in NFL history. The list of Hall of Famers who played or coached in those games is extremely impressive: it includes Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young, Bill Walsh, Troy Aikman, Emmit Smith and Michael Irvin.
The Cowboys knocked the 49ers out of the playoffs in three straight years during the early 1970s, and one decade later the rivalry was renewed in the 1981 NFC championship game, which San Francisco won after Montana hit Dwight Clark in the corner of the end zone in the game’s final minute.
In the early 1990s the two teams squared off three more times in the NFC championship game, with the victor going on to win the Super Bowl each time.
"Everyone knew, before the season started, that it was going to be between Dallas and San Francisco," Sapolu said.
Despite the intense rivalry, and the fact that the Cowboys denied the 49ers a chance at several more Super Bowl rings, Sapolu said the competitions were characterized by mutual respect. In fact, the teams may have been more similar than different in their overall philosophies. One of the key reasons for the success of both the 49ers and the Cowboys, Sapolu said, was that each team refused to compare itself to the rest of the league. Their only measuring stick was themselves.
"At the end of the day you would respect their team," Sapolu said of the Cowboys, "because they created a standard for themselves that was hard to beat."