It was a game played during a global health crisis in unhealthy air.
There were no fans at 68,500-seat Levi’s Stadium on Sunday and smoky skies from Northern California wildfires enhanced the surreal atmosphere as the 49ers’ opened the NFL’s first regular season played in a pandemic.
And this was weird, too: The 49ers, the NFC champions who arrived as seven-point favorites, lost 24-20 to the Cardinals, who went 5-10-1 and occupied the NFC West cellar last year.
The 49ers, hoping to avoid a Super Bowl hangover, emerged with a splitting headache inspired by Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray, last year’s cat-quick No. 1 pick who rallied the Cardinals from an early 10-point hole.
Murray gave the Cardinals a 17-13 lead with 10:26 left on a 22-yard touchdown run. However, the 49ers answered less than two minutes later on Jimmy Garoppolo’s 5-yard touchdown pass to running back Jerick McKinnon.
No problem. Murray responded by directing a game-winning, 75-yard touchdown march. He had a 15-yard scramble on the drive and a 33-yard pass to wideout DeAndre Hopkins that set up running back Kenyan Drake’s 1-yard scoring run on the next play that give Arizona a 24-20 lead with five minutes left.
The 49ers drove to Arizona’s 16-yard line with 47 seconds left, but Garoppolo threw two straight incompletions to effectively end the game.
Murray completed 26 of 40 passes for 230 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He added 91 yards on 13 carries.
The 49ers’ offense started well before mostly stalling: They scored 10 points in the first five minutes and 10 points in the last 55 minutes.
That was, perhaps, a combination of a lack of preseason games and lack of capable wide receivers.
The 49ers played without two top wide receivers, Deebo Samuel (foot) and rookie first-round pick Brandon Aiyuk (hamstring), and they finished the game with three available wideouts after Richie James’ hamstring injury in the second half. In addition, All-Pro tight end George Kittle didn’t have a catch in the second half after he briefly left with an apparent leg injury just before halftime. Kittle had four catches for 44 yards in the first two quarters.
Garoppolo completed 19 of 33 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns. He completed four passes to wideouts, netting 46 yards.
The 49ers opened in midseason form. After their first seven plays, they had 102 yards and a 10-0 lead less than five minutes after kickoff.
Following their game-opening first drive, which ended with a 52-yard field goal by Robbie Gould, their second possession lasted 12 seconds: Running back Raheem Mostert juked rookie linebacker Isaiah Simmons, the No. 8 pick, on an angle route out of the backfield caught a pass from Garoppolo at the 29-yard line and sprinted the 71 yards down the middle of the field for a 76-yard touchdown.
The wobbly Cardinals used special teams to find their footing after stopping the 49ers on the third drive with about seven minutes left in the first quarter.
On 4th-and-5 from the 49ers’ 36-yard line, Arizona’s Ezekiel Turner blocked Mitch Wishnowsky’s punt and the loose ball was returned 5 yards to the 10-yard line. On the next snap, Murray tossed a touchdown pass to running back Chase Edmonds to trim the deficit to 10-7.
The air quality index in Santa Clara hovered around 170 during the game, which is classified as “unhealthy,” but under the threshold of 200 at which the NFL would consider canceling a game.
Running back Tevin Coleman, who has the sickle cell trait and is particularly sensitive to poor air quality, played sparingly and frequently used an oxygen mask on the sideline. He had 18 yards on four carries and a caught a 6-yard pass.