GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The calendar hasn't yet flipped to November, but the San Francisco 49ers' season has already reached draft watch status.
The Niners' season added its latest devastating ending Sunday in the desert when they coughed up a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost 18-15 to the Arizona Cardinals in the closing moments. It was the Niners' second defeat at the hands of the Cardinals this season, a feat that's notable only in the sense that they are the only team Arizona has proved capable of beating in 2018. It was also San Francisco's eighth consecutive loss to Arizona.
Now at 1-7 in a season that seemed lost after the ACL injury to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, it's safe to say the biggest thing left for the 49ers faithful to look forward to is the 2019 NFL draft. There weren't many silver linings to take from the latest defeat but if there's one, it's that the Niners now find themselves in a much better position to have the top overall pick next year.
In fact, Sunday was the latest example of why it's so important for the Niners to have a high pick in 2019. This is a team in desperate need of play makers, the type of players who can make one or two big plays at crunch time that can turn a game on its head.
Sunday's loss to Arizona was San Francisco's ninth in a game decided by one possession since coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch took over last season. The Niners' record in such closely contested games is 3-9 and more than half of their 17 defeats over the past season and a half have come in one-possession games.
"We're fighting," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "Unfortunately we’re not getting the results. These have been some of the toughest losses I’ve seen. We fought the whole game and they made plays in the last four or five minutes and we didn’t. So I think guys learned how to fight. If nothing else, we’re going to know how to fight until the end and guys are doing it. Now, we’ve just got to find a way to make those plays."
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Niners' chances of getting the first pick in the 2019 NFL draft now sit at 25 percent after losing to the woeful Cardinals. A win would have left the Niners with just a 5 percent chance at the top pick.
At 2-6, Arizona is still a favorite to land the top pick with a 35 percent chance but that's a considerable drop off from the 71 percent chance it would have had if it had not pulled off the fourth-quarter comeback.
The next couple of weeks should only offer more clarity to how the top of the draft will shake out.
Sunday's game was the 15th time since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 that two teams have met with both having one or fewer wins and six or more losses. Either the Niners or Cardinals had been involved in five of the past six of those instances.
Another will be added to the tally on Thursday night when the 1-6 Oakland Raiders visit the 1-7 49ers. And things won't get much better the following week when the 1-7 New York Giants come to town for Monday Night Football.
No less than the rights to Ohio State pass-rushing terror Nick Bosa, or some other havoc wreaking edge rusher, could be on the line when that happens. Or, perhaps, a team like the Niners that has Garoppolo as its starting quarterback, could have the option of auctioning the top choice to a quarterback-needy team such as the Giants or Denver Broncos while still drafting an impact player.
Make no mistake, the current iteration of this team could use some more victories. There's something to be said for a young team learning how to win and it's far easier to prevent losing from seeping into the culture if you don't do it all the time. For as ugly as Sunday's game was, there were still a few positives to take away. The Niners didn't turn the ball over for the first time since Week 3 and the defense came up with two takeaways, the first steals since Week 4.
Alas, it wasn't enough. But that isn't preventing some Niners veterans from preaching that some day things will change.
"It definitely adds to the frustration because you know you’re right there," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "But you’ve got to try to find positives to draw from it and I think one of the things is getting used to being in those critical situations. There’s gonna be a time where we’re winning games. There’s gonna be a time where we’re gonna be in that critical situation to go to the playoffs, in the playoffs, whatever it is, where going through these games, maybe that at least will give you some confidence and you know how to handle those situations and you’re not caught by surprise."
With eight games to play, the Niners will continue chipping away at finding the winning formula. They'll use that time to continue developing a roster that leans heavily on youth at a number of positions and, more important, evaluate which players can become key contributors and where more upgrades are needed.
Reality says the turnaround the Niners desire won't be possible until Garoppolo and running back Jerick McKinnon return, and more impact-making reinforcements can be added. In the meantime, it's up to the 49ers to learn from the hard losses they're taking now and set Shanahan and Lynch up to go get the players who can turn losses like Sunday's into victories.