The Catch was the winning touchdown reception in the 1981 NFC Championship Game played between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on January 10, 1982, as part of the playoffs following the 1981 NFL season. With 58 seconds left in the game and the 49ers facing 3rd-and-3, San Francisco wide receiver Dwight Clark made a leaping grab in the back of the end zone to complete a 6-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Montana, enabling the 49ers to defeat the Cowboys, 28–27. The Catch is widely regarded as one of the most memorable events in National Football League (NFL) history. It came at the end of a 14-play, 83-yard drive engineered by Montana. The game represented the end of the Cowboys’ domination in the NFC since the conference’s inception in 1970, and the beginning of the 49ers’ rise as an NFL dynasty in the 1980s.
After San Francisco forced Dallas to punt on the opening drive, quarterback Joe Montana completed a 17-yard pass to Charle Young and a 24-yarder to Lenvil Elliott before throwing an 8-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Freddie Solomon. Dallas responded with Danny White’s 20-yard pass to Butch Johnson setting up a 44-yard field goal by Rafael Septién. Then 49ers running back Bill Ring lost a fumble on his own 29, leading to White’s 26-yard touchdown pass to Tony Hill that put the Cowboys up 10–7.
In the second quarter, San Francisco reached the Cowboys’ 27-yard line, only to lose the ball when Everson Walls intercepted a pass from Montana in the end zone. After forcing a Dallas punt, Montana threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Clark to retake the lead, 14–10. Dallas responded with an 80-yard drive, including a controversial pass interference penalty on 49ers defensive back Ronnie Lott which nullified his interception and gave the Cowboys a 35-yard gain to the San Francisco 12-yard line. Three plays later, running back Tony Dorsett scored a 5-yard rushing touchdown to give Dallas a 17–14 lead. The 49ers had another chance to score before halftime when they recovered a fumbled punt on the Dallas 42. After a 15-yard illegal block penalty on Clark, Montana lost a fumble while being sacked by Harvey Martin. The Cowboys fared no better as White was sacked twice on their next drive, once by Jim Stuckey and once by Lawrence Pillers, and the half ended soon after.
In the third quarter, San Francisco had another scoring opportunity when Dwight Hicks returned a punt 12 yards to midfield. The 49ers then drove to the Dallas 16-yard line, but once again they failed to score when Montana threw a pass that bounced out of Elliot’s hands and was intercepted by Randy White. However, the Cowboys soon returned the favor with Danny White’s interception to linebacker Bobby Leopold, and this time the 49ers converted, regaining the lead at 21–17 with a 2-yard touchdown run by running back Johnny Davis.
One minute into the fourth quarter, Septién kicked a 22-yard field goal that cut the scoring difference down to 1 point at 21–20. Then Walls recovered a fumble from running back Walt Easley at midfield to set up White’s 21-yard touchdown pass to tight end Doug Cosbie, giving Dallas a 27–21 advantage. Things got even better for Dallas when Walls recorded his second interception from Montana on the next drive at the Cowboys 27. Dallas managed to pick up a few first downs, but were forced to punt, and White’s kick gave San Francisco the ball at their own 11 with 4:54 left in the game and three timeouts.
49ers’ final drive
Montana started the drive with 89 yards to reach the end zone. The drive began with an incomplete pass to Lenvil Elliot. Elliot then set up a third-and-four with a six-yard run. Montana completed a 6-yard pass to Freddie Solomon to get the first down, then handed off twice to Elliot who gained eleven and seven yards respectively, but dropped a second incomplete pass on second-and-three from their own 41-yard line. An offsides penalty against the Cowboys on the next play gave Montana a fresh set of downs to work with, and Montana completed a 5-yard pass to Earl Cooper just before the 2-minute warning. Returning from the stoppage, Solomon gained 14 yards on a wide receiver reverse play to bring the ball over midfield into Cowboy’s territory at the 35-yard line. Montana completed two quick passes to Clark and Solomon respectively and the 49ers called a timeout with the ball on the Dallas 12. Montana launched his next pass into the end zone, but missed Solomon. On second-and-ten, Elliot ran the ball for six yards, to the Dallas six yard line, setting up a third and four for the 49ers, with a possible first down to be made at the 2-yard line and the ball spotted between the hashmarks as the team called their second timeout.