San Francisco 49ers' crown means little in loaded NFC West

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It took all of one strange Sunday afternoon for the San Francisco 49ers to receive a resounding reminder of their new reality: 2019 is over, nobody cares that they're the defending NFC champions and, if they're going to return to the Super Bowl, they had better be prepared to take everybody's best shot.

That last part is especially true in what looks to be the NFL's toughest neighborhood, the NFC West division. The Arizona Cardinals provided those reminders in bulk in a 24-20 upset victory at Levi's Stadium after the Niners squandered an early 10-point lead and couldn't find the late-game magic needed to come back for the win.

"I don't think anybody is thinking about what happened last season after today," tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "Today is the first day of moving forward and moving past all of that. It doesn't feel good losing any football games, but we understand it's Week 1, we have a long season to go and we have a lot of things to clean up."

Yes, the same Cardinals who finished last in the division a year ago handed San Francisco its first loss of the season, something that didn't happen until Week 10 last year. In knocking off the reigning division champs, the Cardinals made it clear that there is no easy out in the NFC West.

In fact, by the time Sunday's action was over, the Niners were the only team in the NFC West with a loss, a double whammy since the defeat came to a divisional foe. The Seattle Seahawks surged past the Falcons 38-25, and the Los Angeles Rams knocked off the Dallas Cowboys 20-17. Last year, the Niners were 5-1 in the division, a feat that will be difficult to repeat considering they'll have to win out in the division to do it.

All of which made the loss to Arizona that much more difficult to swallow.

"It is tough because it's definitely one of those things where the NFC West is so competitive and you just can't leave anything out there," running back Raheem Mostert said. "You've got to leave it all on the line and it's tough to go back and watch this film but you have got to go back and be honest with yourself, be truthful with yourself because that's the only way you're gonna get better in this league."

Given the lack of a preseason, Arizona's offseason improvements and some of the key injuries the Niners are dealing with, Sunday's loss probably shouldn't have come as a big surprise. Likewise, it also shouldn't be viewed as something that is going to ruin the Niners' season. It was just one game, after all.

But if sounding the alarm is an early-season overreaction, it's probably appropriate to look at what happened against Arizona as an impolite wake-up call.

After a scorching start in which they jumped to a 10-0 lead and failed to convert multiple opportunities to extend it, the 49ers found themselves running in place. The offense, which started its third-string center and was without two of its top receivers, went just 2-of-13 on third and fourth down and managed only one touchdown on four trips into the red zone.

San Francisco's inability to stay on the field on offense eventually caught up to the defense as Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown and Arizona had the ball for 31:26.

Murray's scrambling wouldn't be too big of a deal were it not for the fact that the Niners have to see him and Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson a total of four times per regular season.

"It's very frustrating," end Nick Bosa said. "You play certain plays almost perfectly and then it's still a first down and on the ball tempo. It's definitely a different challenge than usual but in this division you've got to deal with some pretty good quarterbacks. We could do a lot better."

If the 49ers intend to hang on to their division crown, they're going to have to.