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When asked to recall his proudest moment as a player for the Dallas Cowboys, Troy Aikman does not mention the team's breakthrough win over the 49ers in the 1992 NFC Championship Game. Aikman also doesn't pick any of the Cowboys' three Super Bowl wins that includes his MVP performance in Super Bowl XXVII. 

Instead of choosing one of the team's many wins during their dominant run in the 1990s, Aikman points to his team's 38-28 loss to the 49ers in the 1994 NFC Championship Game as his proudest moment. The Cowboys, who were trying to become the first team to win three consecutive Super Bowls, were down 21-0 in the first quarter and 31-14 at intermission. And while they ultimately came up short, Aikman says the Cowboys' resolve that day is what truly validated his team's greatness. 

"It's the game I'm most proud of, as strange as that sounds," the Hall of Fame quarterback said in a feature with NFL Films. "I'm proud of the way we responded, and I believe we showed the football world why it was that we had been champions."

After winning four Super Bowls during the 1980s, the 49ers, who jumpstarted their dynasty by defeating the Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, were still considered the NFL's elite franchise when San Francisco hosted Dallas in the 1992 NFC title game. In what is considered one of the greatest games in NFL history, Aikman's 70-yard completion to Alvin Harper set up the Cowboys' clinching touchdown, as Dallas then defeated the Bills to win the franchise's first Super Bowl in 15 years. 

The two teams faced again -- this time in Dallas -- for the 1993 NFC title game. And while the outcome in '92 was not decided until the game's final moments, the Cowboys (whose coach, Jimmy Johnson, guaranteed victory the week of the game) settled the issue before halftime, roaring out to a 28-7 season en route to a 38-21 win. In what would be Johnson's final game as the Cowboys' head coach, Dallas defeated the Bills again in Super Bowl XXVIII to become the fifth franchise to win back-to-back Super Bowls. 

While the Cowboys had ascended as the NFL's new juggernaut, panic had settled in in San Francisco. After watching his team lose three NFC title games in a four-year span, 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo opened up his pocketbook, as San Francisco signed 27 new players for the '94 season. Among those players was former Cowboys inside linebacker Ken Norton and All-Pro cornerback Deion Sanders. Norton would lead the '94 49ers in tackles, while Sanders' six interceptions (three of which were returned for touchdowns) won him NFL Defensive Player of the Year. 

With the defense playing at a dominant level, the 49ers' offense was enjoying a career year from quarterback Steve Young, who won his second league MVP in a three-year span. But despite a 13-3 regular season (that included a Week 11 home victory over the Cowboys), Young and his teammates knew the season would be for naught if they came up short against the Cowboys in the playoffs. 

"If you get beat by the Cowboys in three championship games in a row, and two of them at home, you might be playing semi-pro ball next year," Young recalled during a documentary on the '94 49ers. "You might have to go home … But if you win the Super Bowl, that little bag that you've been carrying around becomes a Hall of Fame bag." 

"The guys that had experienced the prior two losses I think felt it more than anybody else on the team," added tight end Brent Jones. "We knew what was as stake. This was it." 

On a sunny, 51 degree San Francisco afternoon, the stage was set for a third consecutive NFC championship game showdown between the 49ers and Cowboys, marking only the second time in NFL history that the same two teams had met in the conference title game three straight years (the Steelers and Raiders were the first two do it from 1974-76). The determined 49ers came out swinging, as Eric Davis picked off Aikman and raced 44 yards for the game's first score. San Francisco parlayed two more Cowboys turnovers into two more touchdowns, as the 49ers led 21-0 before the Cowboys could blink. 

Despite the early onslaught, the Cowboys weathered the storm. Dallas' comeback started when Aikman found Michael Irvin open for a 44-yard score. But after an Emmitt Smith touchdown cut the deficit to 10 points, Young's 28-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Rice just before halftime appeared to be the knockout punch. 

"I think they thought, 'We'll go in, we're down a little bit, we'll be OK,'" Young said. "Boom, seven more, and I think it sent a message in the locker room at halftime: 'This is going to be a tough one to come back from.'" 

If they were discouraged, the Cowboys didn't show it at the start of the second half. Smith (who played through a hamstring injury) started the second half with his second touchdown that made it a 31-21 game. And even after Young's one-yard score again stretched the 49ers' lead to 17 points, the Cowboys got back to within striking distance when Irvin (who finished the game with 192 yards on 12 receptions) caught his second touchdown with 8:29 left. The score was set up by Aikman's fourth down completion to Kevin Williams on the previous play. 

"Troy, he felt like we could come back," Smith said of Aikman, who threw for a then-NFC championship game record 380 yards. "Therefore, everybody felt that way. With Troy leading the way, there was no panic. There was no anxiety."

While the Cowboys' defense would shut down the 49ers' offense on their final two possessions, San Francisco's defense also came up with two big stops that ultimately sealed the win. There was also some controversy on Aikman's incomplete pass to Irvin that would have given the Cowboys a first down inside the 49ers' 5-yard-line with six minutes left. Dallas fans continue to argue that Sanders, who the following season would be a member of the Cowboys, committed pass interference when he placed his left arm on Irvin's chest prior to Aikman's pass arriving. Three plays later, Tim Harris' sack of Aikman ended the Cowboys' last good chance at further cutting into the 49ers' lead. On their final possession, Dallas moved the ball from their 5 to the 49ers' 46-yard-line before another sack and two incomplete passes all but ended the game. 

With his first NFC championship win secured, Young knelt on the game's final three plays, as he and his teammates quickly began celebrating what is still considered to be one of the greatest wins in franchise history. Young himself has said that the 49ers' win against the Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX was melodramatic when compared to the elation he and his team felt after defeating the Cowboys, who in 1995 would become the first team to win three Super Bowls over a four-year span. 

And while he was on the losing end of the final score that day, Aikman continues to be proud of the effort he and his teammates displayed on January 15, 1995, a day that, for him, cemented his team's place among the NFL's all-time great teams.