Closing time in the NFL begins in December

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January and the first week in February are when NFL champions are decided.

December sets it all up.

Since the NFL went to the 16-game schedule in 1978, the Super Bowl champions have a combined record of 112-36 (.757 winning percentage) in the final four games of the regular season during those title seasons. Coincidentally, 28 of those 37 Super Bowl winners - yep, 75.7 percent - won at least three of their final four regular-season games during that span.

New England has an NFL-best 17-3 mark in the final four games of the regular season since 2010, including a 3-1 record last season on the way to the Super Bowl win against Seattle.

Next since 2010 is Indianapolis (15-5), followed by Green Bay, Pittsburgh and, somewhat surprisingly, Carolina and San Diego, all at 14-6. The Panthers won all four finishing games in 2014 and, of course, are undefeated through 12 games this year.

As for the quarterbacks who get it done in the final quarter of the schedule, who else but the Patriots' Tom Brady is highly successful at 43-9 in his career, which dates back to his first year as a starter, 2001. But he isn't on top in winning percentage at .827. That distinction belongs to San Diego's Philip Rivers at 30-6 (.833).

Rivers' record figures to plunge this season, though, given that the Chargers are 3-9 and in contention for the top overall draft pick.

Two Hall of Fame quarterbacks are next on the list: Roger Staubach went 24-6 (.800) and Joe Montana was 35-12 (.745).

Which other individual players tend to do stellar work in the final four contests?

Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, currently injured, leads with 2,019 yards rushing, far ahead of Buffalo's LeSean McCoy at 1,661, all gained while he was with the Eagles. Detroit's Calvin Johnson is No. 1 in yards receiving with 2,269, followed by Atlanta's Roddy White with 1,911.

Lynch is tops with 25 overall touchdowns, followed by Dallas WR Dez Bryant with 19. Jared Allen, now with Carolina, has had 24 1-2 sacks, ahead of Kansas City's Tamba Hali (17 1-2) and Houston's J.J. Watt (17).

The Seahawks' Richard Sherman leads with 11 interceptions, and Reggie Nelson of Cincinnati is next with 10.


MANGINI'S CLEVELAND MEMORIES: Eric Mangini wishes he had turned the Browns into a winner.

Mangini's wife and children traveled a few days ahead of him to Cleveland this past week to begin the big reunion before the 49ers played the Browns on Sunday.

Mangini's ties to the city and team run deep.

As Cleveland's head coach in 2009-10, Mangini had a 10-22 record with a pair of 5-11 seasons. In 1994, Mangini served as Browns ball boy and public relations intern before becoming a coaches' assistant the following season. Now, he's the Niners' defensive coordinator.

''I love Cleveland,'' he said. ''I've lived on the west side. I've lived on the east side. It gets a bad rap. I thought it was a great, great place to live, great place to raise a family. I loved the people that we met there. And you meet amazing people wherever you go and you have great experiences wherever you go, but my biggest disappointment was not being able to produce the winner that they deserve there.

''I have nothing but great things from my time.''


POP QUIZ TIME: Interim coach Mike Mularkey wanted to rev up the Tennessee Titans' production on third downs after they opened 0 for 9 in a loss to Oakland, so he used a trick he picked up from Bill Cowher.

He gave the Titans a pop quiz.

Mularkey sat in on meetings last week with the special teams, offense and defense, picking random players for questions. No warnings in advance to see just how prepared the Titans were. Some guys were taken by surprise.

''Some guys looked bad, some guys were great,'' Mularkey said. ''I mean great like they were a coach. They could get up there and install. I kind of hit them with that.''

The embarrassment was much better than being exposed during a game, and the reminder to be prepared certainly seemed to help. Tennessee greatly improved on third downs, going 8 of 13 in a 42-39 win over Jacksonville. Even better, Mularkey expects his pop quiz will ensure the Titans are prepared before walking into a meeting again.

''Next time I do this, I know the responses I'll get,'' Mularkey said.


JUST SHOWING OFF: Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson doesn't mind his players showing off after a touchdown, as long as it's within the rules. Take running back Jeremy Hill, for example.

After his touchdown run in Cleveland last week, Hill jumped into the Dawg Pound and was patted on the back by two Bengals fans in the front row. This came a year after he jumped into the Pound and was pushed out by Browns fans.

''I love that part,'' Jackson said. ''That didn't bother me. That's fine. Celebration - I'm not down on celebration.''

In fact, Jackson would like to see star receiver A.J. Green show a little more emotion after reaching the end zone. The low-key receiver tends to toss the ball to the referee and accept his teammates' congratulations, which Jackson finds rather boring.

''I've asked A.J., I've said: When you going to do something for us? Anything! Don't just toss the ball, please,'' Jackson said. ''I told him in front of the whole team: please do something. I don't care if you just fall down to your knees and give thanks. Just something out of the ordinary.

''But that's not who he is. Maybe one of these days he'll surprise me and do something.''


NOT ANGRY: For most of this season Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin has kept his emotions in check, seeming to shed the label of being ''Angry'' Doug Baldwin.

It could be because he's been so productive on the field.

Thanks to the last four games, Baldwin has a chance to do something that's become a rarity in Seattle: become the team's first 1,000-yard receiver since Bobby Engram, who had 1,147 yards in 2007. Only six players in team history have had 1,000 yards receiving in a season.

The past month has put Baldwin in position to reach that mark. Baldwin has 778 yards receiving and eight touchdowns for the season, but most of that has come since Seattle's bye week. In the last four games, Baldwin has 433 yards and six touchdowns and is averaging 18 yards per catch.

''Watching Doug's approach to this game and how he studies and everything he does, he does it the right way. That's why he's playing like a Pro Bowl player,'' Seattle QB Russell Wilson said.


AP Pro Football Writers Barry Wilner and Teresa M. Walker, and Sports Writers Joe Kay and Janie McCauley contributed to this notebook.


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