49ers' unexpected loss to Cardinals shows challenges of defending NFC West title

NFL 49ers 49ers v Cardinals Cardinals American Football

The 49ers are in for another grueling division battle this year, and the difficulty of their title defense was on full display Sunday afternoon in a 24-20 loss to the team expected to finish last in the NFC West.

Kyler Murray led back-to-back electric, go-ahead drives for the Cardinals in the fourth quarter to beat San Francisco's much-hyped defense. He did it with his legs, capping a 14-play drive with a score on the ground, and with his arm, completing five straight passes to set up an easy run from the 1 for teammate Kenyan Drake. He worked out immediate chemistry with newcomer DeAndre Hopkins, who finished the contest with 14 catches for 151 yards in his debut.

San Francisco, which reached the Super Bowl in February, came into Week 1 as a 5.5-point favorite over the Cardinals. By overcoming those odds at Levi's Stadium, Arizona showed it could be a disruptor in 2020 behind its fast-developing offense and a defense that has nowhere to go but up following its putrid play a season ago. The Seahawks and Rams are expected to be strong division contenders, too.

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It remains to be seen whether the 49ers will avoid regression in the areas they leaned on most for success last year. They traded standout defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Colts and running back Matt Breida to the Dolphins during the offseason. They set a high standard in 2019 that will be difficult to replicate. If they don't have the best defensive unit in the league or a dominant run scheme, pressure will increase on quarte

rback Jimmy Garoppolo to carry a greater load.

San Francisco's defensive line and running game produced mixed results against the Cardinals.

Murray repeatedly broke containment and paced Arizona with 91 rushing yards. As a team, the Cardinals ran for 180 yards — more than any team racked up in a single contest against San Francisco last season. The 49ers' ground attack, meanwhile, managed 123 yards and at times struggled to move the ball.

Given the talent San Francisco still has in its defensive front and depth it possesses in its backfield, the club expects to roar back next week at the Jets.

But the 49ers face a challenge unlike any conference rivals from other divisions are taking on. The NFC South will likely be able to beat up on the lowly Panthers, and the NFC North and NFC East project as uninspiring containers of mediocrity. There are no cupcakes in the NFC West.

The Cardinals on Sunday looked like a .500 team or better. Expect them to be agents of chaos in a division San Francisco needs to win to gain home field advantage in the playoffs.