The 49ers took advantage of a third-place schedule this season after finishing behind both the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West a year ago. But now that they're the cream of the crop in the division, they won't have that same benefit next season.
The NFL schedule is intentionally structured to create parity. Generally, the best teams from the previous season face each other, while the teams that finished third and fourth in their respective divisions encounter a less challenging slate. The point is to create a situation in which all teams can contend for the playoffs on a regular basis.
You don't have to look further than San Francisco to get an idea of how quickly a team's fortunes can change within this system. The 49ers went from the No. 2 overall pick in the draft to the No. 1 seed in the NFC. And, consequently, they'll face a tougher road through the regular season in 2020 than they did in 2019.
The NFC West will play against the AFC East and NFC East in 2020. Counting San Francisco's six intra-divisional contests, that accounts for 14 of the 16 games the 49ers will play during the 2020 regular season. But since they finished first in their own division, they'll also face the 2019 first-place teams from the two other divisions in the conference, meaning the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers.
While the game dates have yet to be announced, their locations are known. For instance, San Francisco will travel to New Orleans, while the Packers will visit Levi's Stadium in 2020 -- both for the second season in a row.
The 49ers' 2020 opponents compiled a combined record of 134-120-2 in 2019, which equates to a .528 winning percentage. That ranks as the toughest 2020 regular-season schedule in the NFC and the fourth-toughest in the NFL, behind the New England Patriots (.537), New York Jets (.533) and Miami Dolphins (.529). For comparison, their 2019 opponents combined for a .510 winning percentage in 2018.
Now, just as the 49ers went from near-worst to first, it isn't uncommon to see the opposite occur. Just because a team was successful in 2019 does not guarantee that it'll be a winning squad next season, so it's certainly possible that San Francisco's 2020 schedule won't be as daunting as it currently appears. Of course, one could also argue that most -- if not all -- of the 49ers' divisional foes will be improved in 2020, so if you're expecting them to easily coast to a second straight NFC West title, you're likely asking to be disappointed.