SportsCenter relives some wild ones

  Friday, Jan. 8 8:13pm ET
'Captain Comeback' leads '72 Cowboys past 49ers
From ESPN SportsCenter

  This is the first in a five-part ESPN SportsCenter series on the best NFL Divisional playoff games of all-time, selected by a vote of users earlier this month. Follow the series on-air and on-line as ESPN brings you the best of the best.
You want old school? Well, when it comes to fourth-quarter comebacks, Roger Staubach is definitely old school. And the 1972 NFC divisional playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers was his playground.

A decade before Joe Montana, John Elway and Dan Marino came onto the NFL scene and turned fourth quarters into their personal highlight collections, Staubach was creating the art form of dramatic comebacks.

He was the original "Captain Comeback." And as the 49ers found out in this second-round playoff game, even when Staubach didn't start a game, he could finish like few quarterbacks in the NFL.

Of his 23 fourth-quarter comebacks, Staubach needed only the final two minutes to pull off 17 unlikely victories. But against the 49ers, Staubach would provide quite possibly his most unlikely of playoff comeback.

Out of action since Week 5 with a separated shoulder, Staubach watched from the Candlestick Park sidelines for the first three quarters. In his place, Craig Morton struggled to get the Cowboys offense in motion.

 Roger Staubach
 Roger Staubach didn't start against the 49ers, but he sure finished them off in 1972.
The 49ers, meanwhile, opened the game with a bang. Vic Washington took the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. And when the 49ers took a 21-6 lead in the second quarter, it looked like San Francisco would finally reverse its fortune against the Cowboys, who had beaten them in the two previous NFC Championship games.

"They were laughing at us. Making fun of us during the game," said Dallas safety Charlie Waters. "They were really enjoying having the upper hand on us. They didn't think there was any way (we'd come back) -- because our offense was sputtering. We were doing absolutely nothing."

Dallas was able to cut the deficit to 21-13 by halftime, as Morton hooked up with eventual Hall of Famer Lance Alworth on a 28-yard touchdown pass. But when the 49ers took a 28-13 lead into the fourth quarter, head coach Tom Landry decided to send Staubach into the game.

Calvin Hill's 48-yard run set up a field goal that got the Cowboys within 28-16 with 10 minutes to play. The Cowboys' defense held San Francisco in check the rest of the way, setting the stage for the final two minutes, when Staubach went into full comeback mode. When it was all said and done, Staubach's magnificent fourth-quarter performance saw him complete 12 of 20 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns.

A toss to Billy Parks got the Cowboys to the 20 after the two-minute warning. Staubach then spotted Parks in the end zone for the first of his two touchdown passes. Dallas was now down 28-23 with 1:20 to play.

But the Cowboys needed to figure out a way to get the ball back into Staubach's hands.

"We had this foreign kicker from Australia, Toni Fritsch," said Waters. "He used to try all these tricky ways of kicking the ball. And he used to do this thing where he'd run up to the ball and run past it. And he'd kick it behind his back."

Sure enough, Fritsch fooled the 49ers. He lined up to kick to the left, but Fritsch instead squibbed the ball to the right, bouncing it off the 49ers' Preston Riley. Mel Renfro recovered the ball for the Cowboys.

"Once we got that onside kick, the momentum definitely turned," Staubach said.

Again, Staubach hit Parks to set up the winning touchdown. Then with 52 seconds to play, the game-winner went to Ron Sellers, capping a 15-point rally in the fourth quarter and a 30-28 victory.

"I think the biggest thing about Roger is that he never quit," Cowboys defensive end Bob Lilly said. "It didn't matter now much the Cowboys were down."

Candlestick Park would be the site of another dramatic ending 10 years later in the 1981 NFC title game between these teams. But long before Montana's pass turned into "The Catch" by Dwight Clark, a comeback by Staubach once again left the San Francisco faithful stunned.

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