Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Time to see if Johnny Manziel can play or not

The big story in the NFL this week was the news of the league’s tougher new personal-conduct policy, with its six-game suspension without pay for first offenses such as domestic abuse and other violence. That is King Sport moving to mend its scuffed public image in the wake of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, et al.

But the talking point this week — the news on the field that interests far more fans — is the dawn of Johnny Football II, pro version.

Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel makes his first NFL start Sunday in Cleveland vs. rival Cincinnati. The game has much weight in the AFC playoff chase, but the implications for Manziel are even broader. He is supposed to be the savior, the answer, the franchise QB who carries the Browns (if not this season) to their first playoffs since 2002 and first postseason victory since distant 1994.

The switch to Manziel was easy. During a 1-3 Cleveland skid Brian Hoyer had thrown only one TD with eight interceptions. But even if Hoyer had not slipped the call for Manziel would have surely increased in volume, because possibility is so often so much more tantalizing than reality.

To starving Browns fans, Manziel was to Hoyer as Jim Harbaugh is to Joe Philbin to Dolphins fans: Change that is exciting without ever knowing whether the excitement will be justified.

With Manziel it’s the not knowing that is part of the excitement. He isn’t seen as a certain star like Andrew Luck was. Manziel slipped to 22nd in the first round for a reason. To doubters, he’s the next Tim Tebow, the college phenom whose talents don’t translate. To fans, he’s the next great pass/run dual threat, and the brash personality whose jersey sales will soar to No.1 on the charts.

He was a Heisman-winning superstar at Texas A&M. Now, will he justify all the hype, or be crushed by it? The finding out will be fun. Considering he’s played only 18 snaps and thrown only nine passes all season, the finding out starts Sunday.


▪ Pro Bowl fan voting at ends Monday, and four Dolphins currently rank in top 10 league-wide at their position: DE Cam Wake (third), CB Brent Grimes (fifth), returner Jarvis Landry (ninth) and G Mike Pouncey (10th). Wake and Grimes have a good shot to be selected.

▪ No team had clinched a playoff spot entering Week 15, but five can: Broncos, Patriots and Colts by simply winning, and Cardinals and Packers with a win and other results. (Cards played Thursday night.)

▪ It’s a four-team race for Super Bowl, via latest Bovada odds. It’s Packers 13-4, Patriots 7-2, Broncos 9-2 and Seahawks 5-1, then it’s a sharp drop to 16-1. Oh, and it’s now 1-3 odds on Fins coach Joe Philbin not returning, meaning that’s perceived as a strong likelihood.

▪ has Dolphins’ postseason chances at only 14.9 percent now after loss to Ravens. But finishing on a 3-0 run would make Miami 88.2 percent likely for playoffs.

▪ Offense rules. Entering Week 15, this season is on record pace for touchdowns (687 right now) and average yards per game (703.0).

▪ Two reasons Steelers are now on playoff pace: RB Le’Veon Bell is first player since Walter Payton in 1977 with three games in a row of 200-plus scrimmage yards, and WR Martavis Bryant is first rookie since 1954 with seven TD catches in his first seven career games.

▪ Giants WR Odell Beckham is first rookie ever with 90-plus yards in six games in a row.

▪ Texans’ J.J. Watt last week become fourth man with 50 sacks in first four seasons, following Reggie White, DeMarcus Ware and Dwight Freeney.

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