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Week 4 observations: 3-1 Titans, Niners are true contenders

Don't look now, but there's something brewing in Tennessee. Chris Johnson quietly put together his first 100-yard rushing effort in the Titans' 31-13 win over the Browns. Matt Hasselbeck continues to light people up, even without Kenny Britt, throwing three more touchdowns Sunday. And the young defense is playing better than expected.

The 3-1 Titans are winning games even when they're far from their best, as was the case Sunday. A week before, it took a crucial goal-line stand to stave off Denver. But the wins are now mounting, and Mike Munchak is going to demand a certain level of play in the trenches.

Tennessee's secondary, once considered the best in the NFL only to drop mightily, has been suffocating at times again this season (as the Ravens' receivers can attest). Tied with the Texans atop the new-look AFC South, the Titans have enough strong units to continue to be a factor in the division all season. The biggest question will be how they manage to nurse Hasselbeck through an entire season, given his age and all of his injury woes in recent years.

49ers taking on Harbaugh's identity
The 49ers haven't always looked pretty in opening 3-1, but Michael Lombardi says they can win the NFC West because new coach Jim Harbaugh has his team playing smart. More ...

» Lombardi: Bengals' Dalton improving

Man on fire

Jim Harbaugh might not have started rookie running back Kendall Hunter over Frank Gore just to light a flame under the veteran, but it certainly produced that result. The 49ers were slow and methodical and struggling to run the ball through three weeks. Gore didn't have much going.

But on Sunday, Gore took his first carry 40 yards when he entered midway through the first drive, by far the most explosive run of the season. He ran with power and passion all afternoon, keying the comeback win over the Eagles. How long he can sustain it, and stay healthy, remains to be seen. But Gore played well in a huge road win.

Harbaugh's decision to keep the team on the East Coast for the week between the games at Cincinnati and Philadelphia looked sage (they stayed and practiced in Youngstown, Ohio). Playing back-to-back cross-country games is never easy, and this stretch could go a long way to winning that division for the 49ers. Seven wins might be enough in the NFC West, and when you look at the remaining out-of-division games for San Fran (Tampa, Detroit, Cleveland, Washington, Giants, Baltimore, Pittsburgh), there aren't too many gimmes.

It's barely October, but if the 49ers get in the postseason don't overlook how big these past two weeks were.

Jungle love

Everything fell apart for the Bengals, and their once-stout defense, in 2010, but another tip of the cap is due to defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and coach Marvin Lewis on that side of the ball. That unit is getting it done, and the Bengals shut down the potent Bills attack in the second half Sunday to key a comeback win.

The Bengals rank first in overall defense. The front four, devoid of star power, has been solid. You could make the argument that they haven't played elite teams, but you can't disparage the output. The Bengals are allowing just 2.82 yards per first-down rush, second-best in the NFL. They're sixth in the league in offensive points allowed (division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh are in the top five). They're third in the NFL in third-down defense. If they can keep it up, they could be a lot more competitive than most expected. It wasn't all that long ago they won eight straight games in the AFC North.

Quick-hitters

» The Chargers appear to be a team that's just going through the motions. Don't get me wrong, it's huge they're winning games in the first quarter of the season, but that September slumber was certainly present again. We all figure the offense will wake up, but I have concerns with the defense. Opposing passers are completing 69 percent of their passes against the Chargers, with a 94 rating (and that's against Donovan McNabb, Matt Cassel and Chad Henne/Matt Moore, which more than counters the one game against Tom Brady). The pass rush has been middling at best, and with the offense no longer blowing people out, the defense isn't getting the luxury of playing with those big leads that Philip Rivers can so often provide. The Chargers need to step it up.

» Ryan Torain -- always a health concern -- could be in line for a much bigger role in Washington. Tim Hightower's production was already slipping and he could become more of a third-down guy with rookie Roy Helu getting additional work as the season goes on.


Relive every game this season online and on-demand with enhanced viewing features, including the "All-22" coaches film. Get NFL Game Rewind.

» The Eagles need to get Nnamdi Asomugha making some plays on the ball, ASAP. That secondary has been shoddy in its tackling and opposing quarterbacks have a 107 rating against Philadelphia, with 10 touchdowns allowed to just two picks; only Denver has been worse.

» Another week, another 500 yards allowed by the Patriots. They've given up 30 passes of 20 yards or more -- seven more than any other team in the league.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @JasonLaCanfora

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