Surging Rams start thinking playoffs

Cleveland Browns tight end Harrison Bryant (88) scores a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)
Cleveland Browns tight end Harrison Bryant (88) scores a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams have shown since coming off their bye week that this might not be another rebuilding season after all.

Stafford threw three touchdown passes as Los Angeles pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 36-19 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

The Rams have won three in a row for the first time since the 2021 season, when they won the Super Bowl. They are one of three teams at 6-6 in the NFC and in a race for the last two wild card spots.

"We came to life in the most important moments," Coach Sean McVay said. "If we continue to play this way, then you continue to have conversations where you're relevant to maybe earn an opportunity to play afterwards."

The Browns (7-5) remain playoff contenders in the AFC, but they're headed in the opposite direction. Cleveland dropped its second in a row in the debut of Joe Flacco, the injury-plagued team's fourth starting quarterback this season.

Since returning from a thumb injury that caused him to miss 1 1/2 games, Stafford has eight TD passes and two interceptions in the Rams' last three games.

Stafford was 22 of 37 for 279 yards and connected with Puka Nacua, Demarcus Robinson and Cooper Kupp for scores.

Stafford lauded his offensive line, which did not allow a sack. Cleveland came into the game with the league's top-ranked defense and was fifth against the pass.

"I thought we had a great plan. We threw the rock. We weren't sitting there just protecting those guys up front. We're just saying let's go play our game," Stafford said.

Nacua, who left the game briefly with a rib injury, finished with four receptions for 105 yards, including a 70-yard TD in the first quarter. He also had two rushes for 34 yards.

McVay said "I thought he was dead" after Nacua made a leaping grab for a 20-yard reception midway through the second quarter and landed hard on the right side of his body on the Browns' sideline.

Nacua was taken to the locker room but was back on the field when the second half started.

"I guess I was a little sore but super excited. Everything's feeling pretty good," said Nacua, who became the first Rams rookie receiver to reach 1,000 yards in a season.

The Rams led 20-19 with under seven minutes remaining when Flacco threw an ill-fated bomb that was intercepted by John Johnson III. The Rams safety, who was with the Browns for two seasons, returned it 42 yards to the Cleveland 24-yard line.

Five plays later, Kupp scored his first touchdown since Oct. 15 on a 3-yard pass to make it 27-19.

"The win was really what I wanted but (the interception) was the cherry on top," Johnson said.

Kyren Williams had 21 carries for 88 yards, including a 1-yard TD late in the fourth quarter to put it out of reach.

Aaron Donald and rookie Kobie Turner combined to sack Flacco for a safety with 36 seconds to play.

Flacco was 23 of 44 for 254 yards with 2 touchdowns and an interception. The 38-year-old was signed on Nov. 20 to the practice squad and elevated to the active roster this week after Dorian Thompson-Robinson suffered a concussion in last Sunday's loss at Denver.

"It was obviously a lot of fun to be out there and play football again, especially with this group of guys. Obviously not fun in the end, in how it ended," Flacco said.

Flacco got off to a great start. He was 4 of 5 for 65 yards on the opening drive, including a 24-yard touchdown to a wide-open Jerome Ford.

"I felt like we had a chance there, but the game got away from us," Browns Coach Kevin Stefanski said. "I thought Flacco saw it well, made good decisions, got us into the correct plays and all those types of things, so operated well. Did what we expected him to do."

  photo  Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) throws on the run against the Cleveland Browns during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
 
 
  photo  Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) passes during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)
 
 
  photo  Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Demarcus Robinson (15) celebrates his touchdown catch with tight end Hunter Long (84) during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
 
 
  photo  Los Angeles Rams running back Kyren Williams, left, scores a rushing touchdown past Cleveland Browns cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. (23) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
 
 
  photo  Cleveland Browns place kicker Dustin Hopkins (7) gestures after kicking a field goal during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)
 
 
  photo  Los Angeles Rams running back Kyren Williams (23) is pushed out of bounds by Cleveland Browns cornerback Mike Ford (28) and linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. (5) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)
 
 
  photo  Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua (17) celebrates his touchdown catch with wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) and wide receiver Tutu Atwell (5) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
 
 
  photo  Cleveland Browns quarterback Joe Flacco falls down after being tackled during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
 
 
  photo  Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku (85) misses on a catch attempt while being tackled by Los Angeles Rams safety Russ Yeast during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)