The 49ers got a favorable draw with the NFL's addition of a 17th game to the 2021 season.
The AFC North was one of the NFL's strongest divisions in 2020, with three teams among the conference's seven playoff qualifiers. With the league announcing the addition of a 17th game to the 2021 schedule this week, the formula for how each extra matchup was decided came down to the cross-conference division matchups from the 2019 season.
The 49ers and the rest of the NFC West took on each of the AFC North's four teams that season. Then with each division from 2019 matched up, the games themselves were based on each division's standings from 2020.
A 6-10 record left the 49ers at the bottom of the division in 2020, which led the team to be paired against the worst team in the AFC North's 2020 standings, the 4-11-1 Cincinnati Bengals. The third-place Arizona Cardinals will take on the Cleveland Browns, the Los Angeles Rams will face the runner-up Baltimore Ravens and the division-winning Seattle Seahawks will meet the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If it had been based on the 2019 standings, the 49ers -- winners of the NFC West with a 13-3 record -- would have added a date against NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. Instead, a last place finish in 2020 nets the 49ers a matchup against a Cincinnati team that has won just six games over the past two years, and has a second-year quarterback coming off a season-ending knee injury in Joe Burrow.
The NFC West itself was a few bounces away from having a third playoff team with the Cardinals, but now the 49ers' other three division foes each has added an extra game next season against a team that qualified for the postseason in 2020.
The 49ers, meanwhile, draw a game against a team that had the No. 1 overall draft pick just two years ago, and remains in a rebuild trying to surround Burrow with talent.
They let veterans like A.J. Green and Carl Lawson go this offseason, and although they brought in some fresh talent to bolster what was a subpar defense, to say the least, this team is more than a step behind the remainder of its division counterparts.
Coach Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers face a fierce race once again this season in the division, as the Rams made an upgrade at quarterback by acquiring Matthew Stafford, and the Seahawks and Cardinals still have more talent (for now) at QB than San Francisco. Arizona also brought in several high-profile free agents, including five-time All-Pro J.J Watt.
Every game counts. The 49ers certainly didn't get the short end of the straw with this year's formula for an additional 17th game, and that could end up being the difference between a division win and a wild card spot.