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Are tough losses a sign of improving 49ers, bad NFC West, something else?

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Time to figure out what this team is about a quarter of the way into the season.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers dropped to 0-4 on Sunday, losing an 18-15 overtime heartbreaker to the Arizona Cardinals. The 49ers had a win within their grasp, taking a 15-12 lead with just over two minutes left in overtime. The defense, coming off four quarters of strong play, couldn’t hold up late, and Carson Palmer found Larry Fitzgerald for the game-winner.

The 49ers were thumped 23-3 in their season-opener, but have rebounded to lose in close fashion the last three weeks. They lost 12-9 to the Seattle Seahawks, 41-39 to the Los Angeles Rams, and then this one, 18-15 to the Arizona Cardinals. They now sit at 0-4, in the NFC West cellar. They are two games back of the Seahawks and Cardinals, and three games back of the Rams.

The 49ers are now a quarter of the way through Kyle Shanahan’s first season, and the time has come to figure out where things stand. We can’t make final conclusions yet, but we can start to figure out what this team is all about.

The 49ers are winless on the season, but 3-1 against the spread. They’ve hung close each of the last three weeks, and all three games were winnable in the fourth quarter. The team couldn’t get the job done, but there is something to be said about hanging close instead of getting blown out. The 49ers currently have a negative point differential of 28. Through four games last season, the team had a -17 point differential, even with a 28-0 win in the season opener.

A lot of people have reacted to the current state of affairs in a positive manner. The thought is, the 49ers are making serious progress toward a high draft pick while remaining competitive in games. Others just want to see the 49ers get that first victory. And of course, there are plenty of people in between.

I lean towards the first group, but I also find myself wondering what to make of the 49ers performances these past three weeks. They hung with a Rams squad that is looking better and better, but that game came on short rest. They hung with a Seahawks team that has an abysmal offensive line. They hung with a Cardinals team that also has an abysmal offensive line, and looks to be pretty awful all around.

That’s not to take away from having a chance to win all three games, but it seems worth considering. The defense is showing strong signs, but the pass rush is not consistently as good as what we saw in Arizona or Seattle. At the same time, I don’t think the cornerbacks are quite as bad as what we saw for stretches in Arizona.

It will be interesting to see how the defense looks once Reuben Foster and Eric Reid return to the mix. They are key cogs, and along with DeForest Buckner, were playing as well as anybody on this team.

On the other side of the ball, we’ve seen the run game show impressive work through four games, but it has not been enough to overcome a shaky at best passing game. The ceiling will remain limited with Brian Hoyer at quarterback, but it became pretty clear this offseason that the team was looking to 2018 for the quarterback position. Maybe C.J. Beathard shows something, maybe we see the team add Kirk Cousins, or maybe the answer comes atop the 2018 draft board. Whatever the case, I have lowered my expectations at the QB position in the meantime.

What is your state of mind about the 49ers through four games?