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Thirty years later, memories of 'The Catch' still linger

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Watch the original game broadcast of the 1981 NFC Championship, featuring "The Catch", on NFL Network on Tuesday night at midnight ET.

Thirty years ago today, I was on the Dallas Cowboys sideline at Candlestick Park, witness to one of the most memorable moments in NFL history. Forgive me if I don't exactly have fond memories of it.

One thing I do remember is that the 1981 NFC Championship Game, best known for "The Catch", was a classic game from start to finish -- not just at that moment, with 51 seconds left, when Dwight Clark caught the winning TD pass from Joe Montana in the corner of the end zone.

The game started with a 49ers touchdown from Freddie Solomon on the exact same play that won the game for them at the end -- Sprint Option Right. Dallas scored the next 10 points and it was a see-saw battle the whole way. And even after Clark's touchdown, we had a chance to come back and win it ourselves.

But before we get to that point, let's backtrack ...

Montana was the 82nd pick in the 1979 NFL Draft. Not only was it a pick the 49ers had indirectly acquired through the Cowboys, but the Cowboys actually had considered drafting Montana before he reached the 82nd pick. In fact, this draft marked the first time in Cowboys history that we "jumped" a guy. That is, at a certain point in the draft we would simply take the highest-rated player on our board. And when we picked in the third round, that player was Montana. But we had three good quarterbacks on our roster at the time. "We like him," coach Tom Landry said. "But all we'll do is cut him in training camp." So we drafted tight end Doug Cosbie instead. And two-and-a-half years later, Montana kept us from reaching the Super Bowl.

We played in San Francisco during the 1981 regular season, and the 49ers beat the crap out of us, 45-14. The 49ers were an NFL-best 13-3, while we finished 12-4. The 49ers beat the Giants in the divisional playoffs; we beat Tampa Bay, 38-0. I remember the Cowboys practiced in Dallas on Friday morning before the NFC title game, then flew to San Francisco that night.

It was cold on gameday, perhaps 40 degrees at kickoff. We led 17-14 at halftime, the 49ers took a 21-17 lead in the third quarter, and then we scored 10 points in the fourth to go up 27-21. The last score came on a 21-yard TD pass from Danny White to Cosbie -- the player we drafted instead of Montana -- with 4:54 left in the game.

On the one hand, that was plenty of time for the 49ers. On the other hand, we felt pretty good about our chances. After all, we had already intercepted Montana three times and forced two fumbles. Despite his late-game heroics, this was not one of Montana's best games. Up that point.

As it turned out, starting from the Dallas 11-yard line, the 49ers took advantage of a Dallas defense that featured five defensive backs by running the ball. The not-so-immortal duo of Lenvil Elliott and Ricky Patton got the 49ers moving, gaining close to 50 yards on the drive. With a minute to go, they reached the 6-yard line.

Then came those three words I now hate so much: Sprint Option Right. One thing I remember at the time was that defensive end Larry Bethea, playing in place of the injured John Dutton, looped the wrong way. I'm sure they still would have scored, but it was a slight breakdown in defense.

Of course, when I think about "The Catch," I think just as much about the "what if" scenario that occurred after it -- how close the Cowboys came to making "The Catch" irrelevant. With 51 seconds left, we got the ball back and White hit Drew Pearson for a big gain -- and if defensive back Eric Wright didn't get a piece of Pearson's uniform from behind to stop him, Pearson would have been gone. The next play was a crossing route to tight end Doug Donley, who was open. Now, Donley had shoulder surgery when he was at Ohio State, and they did such a good job tightening it up that he couldn't stretch out all the way. For that reason, the pass was just off his fingertips. The next play was a sack and fumble, recovered by the Niners. Game over.

The rest, of course, is history, as the 49ers began their incredible run of success.

On a brighter note…

The 30th anniversary of "The Catch" is rightfully a big deal for any 49ers fan. As for the Cowboys, well, we have something else to celebrate. Jan. 16 will mark the 40th anniversary of the Cowboys' first Super Bowl championship.

After being so close to a title for several years -- losing those tough NFL title games to the Packers and then Super Bowl V to the Colts on a last-second field goal, the Cowboys bolstered an already strong roster in 1971 by acquiring four veteran future Hall of Famers -- Mike Ditka, Herb Adderley, Lance Alworth and Forrest Gregg. We went on to beat the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI, 24-3. My favorite memory of that day? During the postgame celebration, the players tossed me, fully clothed, into the shower. I was dripping wet for a drive back to the hotel that seemed like an eternity. But it was great.

There will be a party in Dallas next Monday to celebrate that anniversary. It's a safe bet the names Joe Montana and Dwight Clark will not come up.

NFL odysseys

» The Steelers-Broncos overtime game was noteworthy on a few fronts. For starters, it was the first game using the NFL's new OT rule designed to give both teams at least one possession turned out to be the shortest overtime in NFL history - all of 11 seconds. And it just so happens that the first regular-season overtime game -- on Sept. 22, 1974 -- was also Pittsburgh-Denver. And coincidentally, that game ended in a 35-35 tie despite the extra period.

» The Steelers allowed a total of seven pass plays of more than 30 yards during the regular season. On Sunday at Denver, they allowed five such plays.

» Before the Broncos scored on the first play of OT, they had run the ball on 21 of 24 first-down plays in regulation.

» Wild-card weekend featured two players -- Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas -- with 200-plus yards receiving, the first time that's happened in one round of the playoffs. Oddly enough, both come from Georgia Tech, a college better known recently for its running game.

» For the first time ever, the divisional round of the playoffs will feature four quarterbacks who have been Super Bowl MVPs -- Tom Brady, Brew Brees, Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers.

» Denver's winning TD spawned a record 9,420 tweets per second, an all-time Twitter high.

» The home teams went 4-0 during Wild Card Weekend -- the first time that's happened during that playoff round since 2006.

Playoff picks

Here's a quick look at the four games this weekend:

Harrison: Playoff power rankings
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Saints at 49ers: This meeting of former NFC West rivals features a classic contrast in style. The 49ers are plus-28 in turnover ratio in the regular season while the Saints are minus-3. The Saints have never won a road playoff game, and are not great on grass.
Prediction: 49ers 31, Saints 30

Broncos at Patriots: Another matchup between a pass-first team and a run-first team. New England did not win a game this year (0-3) against teams over .500 at the time it played. The Patriots have a big edge in point differential: Denver is minus-81, New England is plus-171.
Prediction: Patriots 38, Broncos 17

Texans at Ravens: Both defenses are very good. Point differential is close to even. Houston is plus-7 in turnover ratio; Baltimore is plus-2. Both teams are led by outstanding running backs in Arian Foster and Ray Rice. The biggest issue here likely is that it is so hard to expect a rookie QB to win a road playoff game.
Prediction: Ravens 20, Texans 17

Giants at Packers: The Packers have allowed a lot of yards and a lot of points, but they've also recorded 31 interceptions, a big number. I'm not sure that having rested Aaron Rodgers an extra week was the best idea. He will face tremendous pressure from Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul, and that could be the difference.
Prediction: Giants 27, Packers 24

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