Fewer mistakes, more confidence
The prevailing feeling during the 4½-month lockout was that first-year coaches would be at a disadvantage once the season started because they would not have the benefit of offseason workouts or minicamps to install their systems. That is why it is so surprising -- and impressive -- that Jim Harbaugh has San Francisco at 4-1 after the first five weeks of the season.
The 49ers have not had a winning season in nine years, and their record of 46-82 over that span is the fourth worst in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats and Information. They haven't sniffed the playoffs since Steve Mariucci's last season as the coach in 2002. Just a year ago, the Niners were 0-5 and on their way to a 6-10 finish that got Mike Singletary fired before the season was even over.
Harbaugh has stressed accountability, responsibility, fundamentals and attention to the littlest details.
The results have been dramatic. Through five games last season, San Francisco scored 76 points and allowed 130. Through five games this season, the team has scored 142 and allowed only 78, and in two of those games, against Cincinnati in Week 3 and Tampa Bay in Week 5, the Niners' defense did not allow a touchdown.
In the last three weeks alone, San Francisco has come back to beat Cincinnati on the road, overcome its biggest deficit in 15 years in beating Philadelphia on the road, and bludgeoned a Tampa Bay team that beat it 21-0 just a year ago. The 48-3 win over the Buccaneers was the Niners' largest margin of victory since 1987.
And consider this: Since halftime of the Eagles game, San Francisco has scored 69 points, its most in a six-quarter stretch since 2003. Quarterback Alex Smith is playing consistently. Running back Frank Gore has consecutive 100-yard rushing games. The team has committed only four turnovers all season. Against Tampa Bay, the Niners had only three penalties, allowed no sacks and committed one turnover.
This team is disciplined and confident, something it hasn't been in a long, long time.
"Just playing together, expecting to win, having confidence," tight end Vernon Davis told reporters after the win Sunday. "That will take you a long way, confidence. And that's what this team has right now. Everyone is hungry. Everyone wants to win. And we are putting it all together."
Given the franchise's recent futility, it is a shocking turn of events.
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
Who says Buffalo lacks talent?
The 49ers are a great story, but the Buffalo Bills are the biggest surprise so far this year.
No one saw this coming.
I remember going to Bills training camp in 2010 and coming away thinking they were the least talented team in the NFL. At the time, Chan Gailey was trying to figure out if they were going to be a running team or a passing team. The defense was trying to transition to the 3-4 but didn't look the part. There were no pass-rushers and the best defender, Kyle Williams, was transitioning to nose tackle.
General manager Buddy Nix came over to me and said, "We're going to be better than you think.'' They went 4-12 last season and were right about where I thought they would be.
This season, Gailey is doing miracles with the offense and the defense. I still can't believe the Bills traded away Lee Evans and are scoring 32.8 points a game. They are still moving the football even though they lost wide receiver Roscoe Parrish for the season and lost wide receiver Donald Jones for 4-6 weeks with a high ankle sprain.
Bill Belichick couldn't figure out a way to stop Gailey's imaginative version of the spread offense. Gailey spreads the field with three or four receivers, creating the spacing to make the right run calls for Fred Jackson, who has 480 rushing yards and five touchdowns in five games.
Ryan Fitzpatrick has played at a Pro Bowl level. He'll take the short passes and move the ball up and down the field. I don't know how the offense will hold up when the weather gets colder, but it's ahead of the defenses trying to stop it so far.
They've put up 31 to 41 points a game on the Chiefs, Raiders, Patriots and Eagles. Three of those teams made the playoffs last season.
The defense's ability to force turnovers has been a surprise. The Bills have intercepted 12 passes so far and have returned three for touchdowns in the past three weeks. They had only 11 interceptions all last season.
I don't know how long this run can hold up, but it's one that I didn't see coming.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.