By Sam McPherson

The San Francisco 49ers are in first place in the NFC West division of the National Football League after Week 1, and the Seattle Seahawks are not. That’s the best news for any 49ers fan, of course, after watching the team from the Pacific Northwest outdo them in almost every way during the past few seasons. The good news, too, is that the San Francisco franchise seems to be headed back in the right direction after a one-year absence from the postseason, although there’s a lot of football left to be played—and two other teams also atop the division with the 49ers.

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The NFC West is the best division in football: All four teams are capable of making the postseason, based on Week 1 results. That cannot happen, of course, but San Francisco is right in the thick of things based on their dominant performance on Monday Night Football against the Minnesota Vikings. They have a strong running game and a stout defense to thank for the 20-3 win that puts them in the NFL conversation that few thought they would be in this season.

A Revitalized Running Game

Carlos Hyde took over the reins from Frank Gore, and he didn’t miss a beat in Week 1. Gore led the team in rushing for 10 straight seasons, but he took off for Indianapolis as a free agent during the offseason. Gore had averaged a mere 3.9 yards per carry in 2014, and he was getting old. It was the right thing to let him go seek fortunes elsewhere this late in his career. That decision was clearly justified by Hyde’s performance against the Vikings on Monday: 6.5 yards per carry on 26 attempts, 168 yards and two touchdowns. He should be able to do it again on Sunday against a somewhat weak Pittsburgh Steelers defense.

A Replenished Defense

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Everyone thought the Niners would be hurting on defense with the loss of so many key players from the last four seasons, but the new guys stepped up and delivered big time in Week 1. San Francisco held Minnesota to just 248 total yards, including limiting running back Adrian Peterson to just 31 yards on 10 carries. Sure, it’s just one week, but if the 49ers can keep a Top 5 defense on the field for the whole season, they will be serious contenders for the NFC West division title. That’s something no one outside the 49ers organization thought possible going into the regular season. They’ll need to prove it again this week, however, against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers.

Kaepernick Still Needs Some Work

The so-called West Coast Offense that was the S.F. calling card for so many years and so many Super Bowl wins is no more, and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick still remains a work in progress in his fifth NFL season. He ranked 30th last week in passing yards, and few teams win the NFL championship with such anemic passing games. This was a huge problem last year, and it seems to have carried over still to this season. While Kaepernick’s completion percentage was good on Monday night, he needs to be able to hit receivers downfield with more consistency. Look for that to improve this year if the 49ers truly want to threaten the NFL’s elite teams in January. Kaepernick has learned to use his legs at the opportune times; now he needs to learn to hit the big pass plays, too. The Steelers secondary isn’t what it was, so maybe he will have those chances on Sunday.

The Jim Tomsula Era Has Begun

Jim who? Jim Tomsula! Winning his debut gets a big monkey off of his back, of course, in terms of the shadow cast for the former head coach named Jim. There were no coaching blunders on Monday night, sometimes seen when a longtime assistant coach takes over the head coaching position. Sure, there were too many penalties and a few special-teams errors, but overall, Tomsula’s command of his team was clear. The 49ers like him, and he loves being the head coach. That enthusiasm will have to be clear every week of the season for San Francisco to maintain this level of play, week-in, week-out—especially when the 49ers play their three division rivals in the games that count so much in the standings.

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Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.