CLEVELAND (AP) – Johnny Manziel spun from pressure and heaved the ball for a stunning touchdown, the kind of football magic he created almost every Saturday for Texas A&M.
This is what it felt like back then. And for Manziel, this was the moment he needed now.
“It’s sweet,” he said.
Manziel threw a 60-yard touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin on Cleveland’s second play and connected with his wide receiver again for a clutch 50-yarder with 2:52 left, giving the Browns a 28-14 win over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
Benjamin also returned a punt 78 yards for a TD in the first half as the Browns (1-1) built a 21-0 lead and hung on for just their third home-opening win since 1999.
Starting in place of the injured Josh McCown, Manziel finished 8 of 15 for 172 yards. But it was his final completion, the game-clinching TD strike to Benjamin that awakened memories of Manziel in college – Johnny Football, the touchdown-making, highlight-a-minute superstar who then fell flat on his face as an NFL rookie.
“It was vintage Manziel,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said. “When a play breaks down that is what he brings.”
Manziel won his Heisman Trophy matchup with Marcus Mariota, who threw two TD passes in the second half for the Titans (1-1), but took a pounding in his second game. The No. 2 overall pick was sacked seven times and needed extra treatment on an injured left ankle afterward.
Mariota finished 21 of 37 for 257 yards. With the Titans down 14 and needing two scores, Mariota, who recorded a perfect passer’s rating last week in his pro debut against Tampa Bay, drove Tennessee inside Cleveland’s 20 but was sacked and stripped by defensive end Armonty Bryant.
“You understand this is a tough league and you can get beat anytime,” Mariota said. “We understood that going in. I could have made a lot more accurate throws and could have been better with the football. But I’ll learn that and get better.”
McCown was not cleared to practice Friday, giving Manziel his third career start and one he had been waiting for since last season ended. This was a chance for redemption for Manziel, who played poorly when he got on the field in 2014 and spent most of the winter in a rehab facility.
“I’ve come a long way from that point on Jan. 17,” Manziel said when asked about his off-field issues. “So to be sitting here today and just have an ultimate turnaround from what it was in the first two starts I had last year, personally it feels awesome. I think I’m getting better, still missed some things that I’m going to be hard on myself about tomorrow.”
Manziel said before his last pass to Benjamin, he heard Titans defensive end Brian Orakpo curse knowing he had let Cleveland’s quarterback outside the pocket where he’s dangerous. Manziel took it from there, throwing the ball as far as he could so Benjamin could run under it.
McCown remains in the league’s protocol on concussions, and Pettine said he would not address his starting quarterback until the 36-year-old returns.
From the start, Manziel was Johnny Deepball.
On his first pass, Manziel faked a hand-off, dropped back and hit a streaking Benjamin, who got behind cornerback Coty Sensabaugh. As Benjamin crossed the goal line, Manziel ran the length of the field, pumping his fist the whole way before celebrating with his teammate.
The quick TD energized Cleveland’s crowd and gave Manziel a boost of confidence.
The Browns went up 14-0 in the first on Isaiah Crowell’s 11-yard run.
Benjamin, who finished with 269 all-purpose yards, made it 21-0 with his electrifying return. He caught Brett Kern’s kick, found a seam and cut toward the left sideline. Benjamin picked up a few blocks, including Pierre Desir’s knockdown of Kern, who was face down as Benjamin hurdled over him and scored.
Like Manziel, this was a comeback for Benjamin, who has overcome a season-ending knee injury suffered in 2013.
“You can’t be happier for a guy for what he has gone through,” Pettine said. “Those are the kind of guys you root for.”
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