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Only now, at the cusp of a new year, has its identity become clear.

The team tied for the best record in the league, just shut out the defending Super Bowl champions. Right?

No.

Am I disrespecting the Falcons? Only a little.

So it's gotta be Denver, no? Peyton Manning is playing like it's 2006. Difference is, he's got a better defense than 2006. Actually, he's got a better defense than he ever had. The Broncos have a mere nine-game winning streak, the latest of which came on the road, at an erstwhile bastion for a formerly fashionable pick.

No, it's not the Broncos either.

It's those guys who can't beat the Rams.

In this year of the freshman quarterback, Jim Harbaugh decided -- three quarters through the season -- to start a sophomore. These gambles don't always work. His brother just fired his offensive coordinator. Again, how'd that go?

You know about the defense. Safeties who hit like linebackers. Linebackers who hit like superheroes. Lineman who hit like ... well, OK.

They're better than they were last year. Last month. Last week.

Seven days ago, the Patriots became the consensus team to beat when they overwhelmed the Texans. That was in Foxborough, where they lost last night.

It's not just that the Niners beat the team that beat the team. It's the way Colin Kaepernick outplayed Tom Brady. On the road. In just his fifth start.

Seven touchdowns, two picks, a passer rating over 100. More than 7 yards a carry. Very RG3-ish.

Remember Michael Crabtree, the bust? Last three weeks? One hundred yards a game.

A few weeks back, I said Harbaugh "better be right" in his decision to bench Alex Smith for Kaepernick.

Maybe he is.

Follow Mark Kriegel on Twitter @MarkKriegel.

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