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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cowboys Face Stern Test From 49ers

DALLAS -- About a year ago this time, the Dallas Cowboys were anointed as "The Team of the '90s." The "dynasty" predicted for Dallas, however, may end in its infancy

Going into the National Football Conference Championship Game against San Francisco this Sunday in Texas Stadium, they are better, or at least as good, on offense as they were a short 12 months ago. All those weapons -- Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Jay Novacek ad infinitum -- are still in place with another year of experience behind them to put distance between Dallas and the league's defenses.

But the Cowboys have slipped on the other side of the line of scrimmage, and that is how the 49ers might make up the 10 points by which they lost the NFC title (30-20) to Dallas last year. In the 1992 season, Dallas had the National Football League's No. 1 defense. This season, the Cowboys are banged-up, middle-of-the-pack defenders (seventh in the NFC, 10th in the NFL) whose aggressive attack is not the disturbance it was to most teams a year ago.

Take it from one who knows about defense. Take it from Reggie White.

"Dallas is a good team, but I think they were a better team last year," says White, whose season ended in the conference semifinals in Texas Stadium last Sunday for the second consecutive season. The Cowboys beat White's Green Bay Packers, 27-17; a year ago, they beat White's Philadelphia Eagles, 34-10, at the same stage of the playoffs.

"They've experienced some injuries," White says. "They're still a good team. That's not to be denied. But I think they were better last year."

The point is, the 49ers are just as good, or maybe even better, than they were offensively a year ago. In 1992, San Francisco took the league's top-rated offense into the NFC championship game. The 49ers will do the same Sunday.

If San Francisco's 44-3 demolition-derby victory over the New York Giants in the NFC's other semifinal last weekend is any indication, the 49ers are ready to rumble through "Big D" on a march into Georgia and the Super Bowl on Jan. 30. If the Cowboys cannot keep the ball out of Steve Young's hands, the dynasty will die.

However, when Dallas played the 49ers on Oct. 17, it limited San Francisco to three possessions in the first half, and won, 26-17. But Young & Co. nonetheless moved the ball up and down the field. The 405 yards the 49ers gained are the most the Cowboys gave up in 1993.

"We moved the football, but we didn't get the ball in the end zone," 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan says. "We only had the ball three times in the first half, so that gives you an idea. We had an opportunity to score some points, but we didn't get it done."

And if the Cowboys can repeat that performance, then they will be on their way to Atlanta.

New York tried to undo the 49ers' offense last Saturday with its basic, two-deep soft zone, but its only effectiveness was in limiting wide receivers Jerry Rice and John Taylor to five receptions. The other elements in San Francisco's attack -- the run (an NFL playoff-record five touchdowns by Ricky Watters and 178 yards on the ground) and the short pass underneath to the tight end and the running backs -- went unfettered. New York's linebackers weren't a factor, including Lawrence Taylor, who announced his retirement on Saturday after a 13-season career that set the standard by which all other outside linebackers are judged.

Because San Francisco's offense is built around a short-pass, timing attack, the linebackers are critical to defending it. Because the 49ers' ground game is so strong, the Cowboys will need to commit their linebackers to run support. And because its linebackers are, at the moment, its weak defensive link, Dallas is vulnerable.

Emmitt Smith, who is supposedly back to full strength after separating his shoulder three weeks ago, and Novacek, Dallas' tight end, should be very effective against the 49ers in exactly the same ways Watters and tight end Brent Jones should be against the Cowboys. Points and yards should not be rare Sunday.

Statistically, at least, the 49ers are right where they were defensively a year ago: 15th in the league. It is the Cowboys who have skidded, who have come back to the pack.

"What scares me the most is that they're kind of like our defense," Williams says. "We're pretty much similar this year. Us, the Giants and the 49ers -- we all have those defenses that bend but don't break. San Francisco is so tough in the red zone, inside the 20. It's hard to beat a team like that."

As hard, maybe, as sustaining a dynasty.