The opportunity was right there for the Rams.
Riding a modest two-game winning streak, a team written off by many before the season began, had played its way into playoff contention.
And with the injury-riddled Cleveland Browns visiting SoFi Stadium on Sunday — ancient quarterback Joe Flacco was signed off the street and started — the Rams were poised to reach .500 and move closer to a postseason bid.
The Rams took care of business and kept rolling, defeating the Browns, 36-19, in front of 72,887. In fact, they hold the No. 7 playoff spot ahead of the late game involving the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers, who could vault ahead of the Rams with a victory.
“The best teams keep getting better,” coach Sean McVay said, “and I’ve seen that each of the last three weeks.”
Rookie receiver Puka Nacua overcame injuries and produced a spectacular performance, quarterback Matthew Stafford passed for three touchdowns and safety John Johnson intercepted a pass as the Rams improved to 6-6.
Johnson, who played the last two seasons for the Browns, was not the only player signed by the Rams to a veteran-minimum contract to come up big. Receiver Demarcus Robinson caught a touchdown pass.
Stafford, who continues to play through a right thumb injury, overcame a defense coordinated by Jim Schwartz, his first head coach with the Detroit Lions. Stafford built on last week’s four-touchdown performance against the Arizona Cardinals, completing 22 of 37 passes for 279 yards. He has passed for 16 touchdowns, with nine interceptions on the season.
“You’ve got to prove it every week,” Stafford said when asked if it felt as if the Rams were in the midst of a playoff push. “That’s all we’re trying to do.”
The Rams now have a three-game winning streak for the first time since the 2021 season, when they won four postseason games in a row, including a victory in the Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium.
The off week after a loss to the Green Bay Packers proved a great tonic for coach Sean McVay and the Rams, who have since defeated the Seattle Seahawks, the Cardinals and the Browns (7-5).
The Rams entered Sunday primed to strengthen their playoff hopes after the Seattle Seahawks lost to the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night. The defeat dropped the Seahawks’ record to 6-6. The Rams swept the Seahawks, so they would win the tiebreaker for a playoff spot.
The victory Sunday kept alive the Rams’ momentum as they prepare for their last five games.
The Rams will get a barometer test next Sunday when they travel to Baltimore to play the Ravens, who are 9-3 and will be rested after an off week.
The Rams then play Washington at home, followed by New Orleans in a Thursday night game at SoFi Stadium. They finish the regular season with road games against the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers.
Early in the game Sunday, Nacua broke Cooper Kupp’s team record for yards receiving by a rookie.
Then he lined up on the right side, ran a route down the middle of the field and caught a midrange pass from Stafford. Nacua sprinted to the end zone for a 70-yard scoring play that gave the Rams a 10-7 lead.
During the second quarter, game officials announced Nacua as questionable to return because of cramping. But Nacua came back and caught a 20-yard pass in front of the Browns’ bench, landing hard on his side.
Trainers attended to Nacua before he was assisted off the field and into the locker room.
“I wasn’t breathing and I didn’t feel like my shoulder was in the right place, but I was good,” Nacua said.
He returned to start the second half and had a huge 31-yard gain on a jet sweep.
Nacua finished with four catches for 105 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for 34 yards. Nacua has 77 catches and 1,029 yards receiving.
“I just hope the guys know that I love playing this game of football and love being out there with them,” he said. “I’m willing to sacrifice whatever it takes in this game on Sunday — whatever we need to do to win, I’m willing to do that.”
When the schedule was released last spring, the Browns looked like a formidable matchup. Deshaun Watson was the quarterback and the defense featured star players such as end Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward.
But Watson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and back-up Dorian Thompson-Robinson suffered a concussion last week during a loss to the Denver Broncos.
So the Browns signed Flacco, and asked the 38-year-old to start against a surging Rams defense with one week of preparation.
On a day when a field official announced the term “butt cheek” to describe the body part that enabled Browns’ receiver Elijah Moore to land inbounds on a contested catch, the Rams defense once again came through.
Johnson, defensive lineman Aaron Donald, nose tackles Kobie Turner and Bobby Brown III, and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon were among those who made key plays.
“We’re just worried about the next ‘W’ right now,” Turner said when asked if it felt like a playoff push. “And hopefully at the end of the day we’ll turn around and think [we] put ourselves in the best position.”
Flacco completed 23 of 44 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception.
The Rams led 13-10 at halftime on Nacua’s touchdown and two field goals by Lucas Havrisik, who also missed a 43-yard attempt.
The Browns tied the score late in the third quarter with a field goal.
The Rams took the lead late in the quarter on Robinson’s seven-yard touchdown catch. Robinson’s first touchdown for the Rams capped a 75-yard drive highlighted by Nacua’s run and Stafford’s 30-yard completion to Robinson on a second-and-20 play from the Browns’ 35-yard line.
The Browns answered with a Flacco touchdown pass to tight end Harrison Bryant, but the Rams caught a break when Dustin Hopkins’ missed the extra-point attempt, leaving the Rams with a 20-19 lead.
The Browns got the ball back with just less than seven minutes left, but Johnson intercepted a long pass and returned it 42 yards. The turnover set up Stafford’s short touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp for a 27-19 lead.
“All you want to do is get hot and get your opportunity at the tournament,” Johnson said of a playoff push, “and go from there.”
Kyren Williams added a short touchdown run late in the fourth quarter, and Donald and Kobie Turner sacked Flacco for a safety for the final margin.