At NFL quarter pole, Niners an early surprise

49ers have new attitude, work ethic under Harbaugh

It doesn't take a Mangenius to decipher the NFL standings one month into the wildest NFL season in recent memory. The winners and losers certainly have separated themselves – and a look across the league landscape a quarter of the way through the season sees the 49ers already establishing themselves as one of the year's surprising early winners.


Shockingly, occupying the higher reaches of the league are the Lions, Bills and 49ers. Buried with the dregs are the Vikings, Colts and much-hyped Eagles, who were dumped Sunday in Philadelphia by a resilient San Francisco team that rallied from a 20-point third-quarter deficit.

There are overachievers (Tennessee, Washington, even Cincinnati) and underachievers (Cowboys, Jets, Steelers, Falcons, Cardinals).

Here's a breakdown of the first month of the season, in reverse order of the standings:

Turnovers


There is no other way of describing Minnesota, Miami, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Kansas City and St. Louis.

At least the Colts (0-4) have the most valid of excuses: no Peyton Manning, who is making a case for his fifth MVP award by not being available because of neck surgery.

As for those other cities:

THE VIKINGS HAVE FLOPPED in virtually every area, most notably in the second half of games, when they have been outscored 67-16. They have blown leads of 10, 17 and 20 points after halftime. It seems a matter of days before quarterback Donovan McNabb is benched for first-round pick Christian Ponder, but the problems go much deeper.

Minnesota lacks cohesion and confidence. With Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen, Percy Harvin and Antoine Winfield, this roster has too much talent to be winless.

''Well, 0-3, 0-4, those are humbling moments,'' coach Leslie Frazier said. ''I don't know if its humility necessarily, but we have to get this right. It's not going to happen by talking about it. It's something we have to do. We are going to identify some things that have to be corrected, and then we have to be the people to get it done.''

WITH THE COUNTDOWN BEGUN IN MIAMI for when the Dolphins (0-4) fire coach Tony Sparano, there's already thought that the team could lose enough games to win the Andrew Luck Draft Derby. Miami is awful on third downs and gives up too many big plays in all areas.

Perhaps Eric Mangini, the former Jets and Browns coach who once led New York to the playoffs, could bring his nickname and his ''genius'' to South Beach.

THE EAGLES HAVE THE PEOPLE to get a lot of things done, but they aren't meshing. A third consecutive defeat was the most embarrassing because Philadelphia (1-3) botched a 23-3 second-half margin against the Niners.

Their secondary, with three standout cornerbacks, including Nnamdi Asomugha, the top prize of free agency, has been a sieve. And the offense, aside from Michael Vick, has been inconsistent, with a penchant for big mistakes.

''Our issue right now is we are unable to close out games,'' Asomugha said. ''You can't come into that last quarter and not be able to pull it out, especially when you're winning.''

ST. LOUIS KNEW ITS DIVISION was for the taking, especially after the Rams went 7-9 a year ago and lost a tiebreaker for the NFC West title. Instead of progressing behind Offensive Rookie of the Year QB Sam Bradford and a young defense, the Rams (0-4) have regressed so badly they already might be out of the race in the league's worst division.

Injuries, particularly to RB Steven Jackson and WR Danny Amendola, have been a factor. More distressing is a defense that sometimes seems clueless.

Touchdowns


CONSIDERING DETROIT'S RECENT HISTORY, four wins through half the schedule would be impressive. These Lions score in bunches behind emerging star QB Matthew Stafford, outstanding WR Calvin Johnson and a surprisingly agile and tough defense, with tackle Ndamukong Suh the centerpiece.

The Lions also are exceptionally organized and well-coached, something no one could say in Matt Millen's day.

And they never give up: the Lions became the first team in NFL history to rally from 20-plus point deficits in consecutive victories, and their 24-point comeback at Dallas matched the largest one on the road in league history, according to STATS, LLC.

MATT HASSELBECK HAS MADE all the difference in Tennessee (3-1), where the rebuilding is going at a rapid pace. The franchise has a new coach, new coordinators and two new quarterbacks, with Hasselbeck having the best start of his 13-year career. The Titans also have the NFL's stingiest scoring defense.

''He is doing the things for us that we hoped he would,'' coach Mike Munchak said. ''You never know how fast things are going to come together when you bring all different guys together that have never worked together and new coaches, but having a guy like him has made the process a lot easier for us.''

DESPITE ITS LATE FLOP in Cincinnati, Buffalo (3-1) has displayed resilience, a strong and versatile offense, and no fear of opponents. The Bills' comeback win over New England in Week 3 to break a 15-game slide against the Patriots showed that, even if the loss to the Bengals – who were beaten at home by the 49ers the previous week – diminished its impact a bit.

''Definitely one that got away from us,'' receiver Stevie Johnson said. ''Everybody in the locker room is frustrated. We're 3-1 but we're frustrated that even have that one `L.' We just have to come back harder.''

STEPPING INTO THE VOID the Rams, Seahawks and Cardinals have created with slow starts is surprising San Francisco, which also is undergoing change and installing new programs with a new head coach and three new coordinators.

The Niners' attitude and work ethic under rookie coach Jim Harbaugh showed best in the surge past the Eagles on Sunday.

Sure, the Eagles' floundering defense made Alex Smith look like Joe Montana and Frank Gore like Emmitt Smith, but give the 49ers (3-1) credit for never losing faith, and their front seven on defense has been nails.

''I told them the other day they're good, and the longer it takes them to figure that out the better off we'll all be, because when people start thinking they've arrived that's when they stop working and doing the things that got them there,'' Harbaugh said. ''We'll keep pretending we have a long way to go, and we do. We don't have to pretend.''

But as the NFL marches into October, the 49ers don't look much like pretenders to the NFC West throne, a place San Francisco hasn't occupied at the end of a season since 2002.

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