INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — 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 straight for the first time since the 2021 season, when they won the Super Bowl. They are one of four 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 straight 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 two 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.”
ON THE MONEY
After Cleveland went three-and-out on its second drive, the Rams took a 10-7 lead with the Stafford-to-Nacua connection.
Stafford eluded pressure and delivered a perfect pass to Nacua, who caught it in stride at the Cleveland 49 and outraced Kahlef Hailassie and Sione Takitaki to the end zone with 3:59 remaining in the first quarter for his fourth touchdown of the season.
Stafford said he audibled to the play and gave Nacua credit for making sure he held his stride.
“He just put the ball exactly where it needed to be,” Nacua said. “I knew the linebacker (Takitaki) is waiting for the ball. It hit me right in the center of the chest and the rest of it is just green grass. I was trying to make sure I didn’t get caught.”
Demarcus Robinson had a season-high four receptions for 55 yards, including his first touchdown with the Rams. Robinson eluded coverage and caught a 7-yard pass from Stafford with 39 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Harrison Bryant took a dump-off pass from Flacco and scored from 8 yards out to get Cleveland within 20-19 with 8:56 remaining in the fourth, but Hopkins, who kicked at SoFi Stadium for parts of two seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers, was wide right on the extra point.
Browns: WR Amari Cooper suffered a concussion during the second quarter and did not return. ... CB Denzel Ward (shoulder) and WR Marquise Goodwin (concussion) were inactive with injuries.
Rams: TE Tyler Higbee was evaluated for a concussion during the third quarter. ... DB Quentin Lake (hamstring) was inactive.
Browns: Host the Jacksonville Jaguars next Sunday.
Rams: At the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl