Three games in, it’s not working. The Browns couldn’t quite get it done Sunday night in Cleveland against a team that is the real deal and a finished product. The Los Angeles Rams upped their record to 3-0 by holding on for a 20-13 triumph when Mayfield threw an end-zone interception in the game’s final minute.
The Rams were the league’s shiny new toy of a few years ago. Their boy wonder of a head coach, Sean McVay, turned things around and got the Rams into the playoffs in the 2017 season. He took them to the Super Bowl last season.
Nowadays, the Rams’ top-contender status isn’t new and fresh. McVay no longer is taking the league by storm. He is an established coach, leading a proven team. The task is to remain at the top of the NFC, not attempt to get there. The challenge is different.
So far, the Rams have been up to their task. Their performance Sunday night wasn’t dazzling. This wasn’t about McVay’s revved-up offense. This was a workmanlike performance by a team that knows how to win.
McVay made the proper adjustments at halftime after the Rams managed only a field goal in the first half and trailed 6-3. Their running game had been nonexistent. Tailback Todd Gurley had only 10 first-half rushing yards on five carries. Gurley had runs of seven and eight yards on the first two plays of the third quarter. The Rams, thanks to McVay, reestablished their running game, and everything else worked off of that. Quarterback Jared Goff threw the first of his two second-half touchdown passes to wide receiver Cooper Kupp on that drive.
Everything was a struggle for the Rams on this night. Goff threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. McVay’s offense wasn’t clicking. But he didn’t allow coaching ego to get in the way. He put the game into the hands of a defense overseen by veteran coordinator Wade Phillips. McVay passed up a fourth-and-one gamble with just more than 6 1/2 minutes to play in favor of a field goal that pushed the Rams’ lead to seven points, trusting that would be enough.
It was, although just barely. Goff’s second interception of the night gave the Browns a chance to tie at the end. A roughing-the-passer penalty on the Rams’ Aaron Donald gave the Browns a first down at the L.A. 4-yard line. But Mayfield threw three incompletions, then threw a fourth-and-goal interception to the Rams’ John Johnson with 27 seconds remaining.
“They really bailed us out, I think,” Kupp told NBC, giving credit to the Rams’ defense for the win.
The Browns, in the first Sunday night game in Cleveland in 11 years, hung in there on an evening on which their injury-depleted defense was missing all four members of its usual starting secondary. Even so, the defense played fine. The offense didn’t do enough.
Mayfield threw a third-quarter touchdown pass to tight end Demetrius Harris. But he threw for a modest 195 yards on 18-for-36 passing. Beckham was quiet, with six catches for 56 yards. The Browns moved the ball reasonably well when they used an up-tempo offensive approach in which Mayfield got the ball out his hands quickly and stuck mostly to shorter passes. Otherwise, they struggled badly. They couldn’t block Donald, the reigning two-time NFL defensive player of the year, and keep him from pressuring Mayfield.
“The secondary just did a great job, great coverage and giving us opportunities,” Donald told NBC. “He’s a little slippery. We were missing him a lot. But at the end of the day, we got to him, put pressure on him, made him uncomfortable and made our plays.”
The Browns also were plagued by debatable coaching strategy and questionable play-calling. They took a risk when they elevated Freddie Kitchens from offensive coordinator to head coach in the offseason. Kitchens didn’t look up to the job on this night.
One fourth-quarter sequence was particularly galling. The Browns turned the ball over on downs after failing to get a first down on a curious fourth-and-nine draw play that drew boos from the home crowd. Just before that, Kitchens failed to challenge a pass interference non-call. The interference was obvious. And while there also was an illegal formation called on the Browns, which was declined by the Rams, a successful challenge would have created offsetting penalties and saved Cleveland a down.
The fourth-down running play had no chance.
“It just didn’t work,” Kitchens said during his postgame news conference. “It was a bad call.”
Yes, it was. And now the Browns, the NFL’s offseason darlings, are off to a 1-2 start, looking much too much like the same old Browns. They’re in the middle of a rugged stretch of their schedule in which their next two games are at Baltimore and San Francisco. Then comes a home game against the Seattle Seahawks followed by a trip to New England. The season very easily could slip away from the Browns.
They were competitive Sunday night against the Rams. But, in the end, that wasn’t good enough against a team that simply is much further along in figuring things out.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Donald said. “But we found a way to stay together. We got a big stop at the end. That’s all that matters. We keep winning. We’re 3-0, keep stacking wins, keep finding ways to get ourselves better. It’s a good performance but we’ve got room for improvement.”
Goff intercepted: Juston Burris intercepted a tipped-ball pass by Jared Goff to give the Browns a chance to tie the game. It was the second interception thrown by Goff and his third turnover in the game. (Rams 20, Browns 13 with 2:46 left in the 4th quarter)
McVay gets cautious: Sean McVay passed up a fourth-and-one gamble and settled for a 37-yard field goal by kicker Greg Zuerlein. That upped the Rams’ lead to seven points, at 20-13, past the midway point of the fourth quarter. (Rams 20, Browns 13 with 6:37 left in the 4th quarter)
Browns fail on fourth down: The Browns turned the ball over on downs after failing to get a first down on a curious fourth-and-nine draw play that drew boos from the home crowd. Just before that, Browns Coach Freddie Kitchens failed to challenge a pass interference non-call. The interference was obvious. And while there also was an illegal formation called on the Browns, which was declined by the Rams, a successful challenge would have created offsetting penalties and saved Cleveland a down. (Rams 17, Browns 13 with 9:14 left in the 4th quarter)
Rams retake lead: The Rams have retaken the lead on Jared Goff’s second touchdown pass of this half to wide receiver Cooper Kupp. This one was a six-yarder on third and goal. The Rams just had been pushed back by a false start penalty, but Kupp was able to get wide open on the third-down play. A 17-yard run by wide receiver Robert Woods on a reverse had given the Rams a first down at the Cleveland 3-yard line. (Rams 17, Browns 13 with 12:48 left in the 4th quarter)
Browns have a reply: Suddenly, both offenses are in gear. The Browns responded to the Rams’ touchdown with one of their own, via a two-yard touchdown pass from Baker Mayfield to tight end Demetrius Harris. A 30-yard gain by Nick Chubb on a third-and-13 screen pass was a key play early in the drive, and a pass interference penalty in the end zone called on the Rams gave the Browns a first down at the 1-yard line. Chubb appeared to score from there, but the touchdown was negated by an illegal shift penalty called on Odell Beckham Jr. That pushed the Browns back to the 6. On third down from the 2, Harris got wide open in the back of the end zone and hauled in Mayfield’s pass. (Browns 13, Rams 10 with 4:37 left in the 3rd quarter)
Rams get quick TD: Coach Sean McVay made some good halftime adjustments and the Rams came out and put together a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Jared Goff threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Cooper Kupp. But the key, it seemed, was McVay recommitting to getting the Rams’ running game established. Tailback Todd Gurley, limited to 10 rushing yards on five first-half carries, had runs of seven and eight yards on the first two plays of the second half. Things opened up for the Rams from there. Goff began finding openings in the passing game to Brandin Cooks and Kupp. A completion to Kupp gave the Rams a first down at the Cleveland 7-yard line. They were pushed back from there. But on third down from the 11, Goff zipped a throw to Kupp near the sideline on the left side of the end zone for the touchdown. (Rams 10, Browns 6 with 10:40 left in the 3rd quarter)
Halftime: The Browns got a field goal as time expired in the first half and lead the Rams, 6-3, at the intermission in Cleveland. The 35-yard field goal by kicker Austin Seibert was set up by a strip-sack by the Browns’ Myles Garrett, who knocked the football from the hand of Rams quarterback Jared Goff just before Goff’s right arm started forward to release a throw. It was pretty much a dud of a first half, though, in the first Sunday night game in Cleveland in 11 years. The Rams failed to do much against an injury-depleted Cleveland defense that is missing all four members of its usual starting secondary. Goff threw for 147 yards on 16-for-23 passing in the half. But the Rams haven’t gotten their running game moving and they’ve managed only one field goal by kicker Greg Zuerlein. The Browns haven’t been much better. Baker Mayfield was limited to 88 first-half passing yards. Odell Beckham Jr. had three catches for 29 yards. (Browns 6, Rams 3 at halftime)
Rams miss FG: The Rams are not taking advantage of the Browns’ injury-depleted secondary, and they failed to take the lead when kicker Greg Zuerlein missed a 48-yard field goal attempt wide right. (Rams 3, Browns 3 with 4:08 left in the 2nd quarter)
McVay’s challenge fails: Rams Coach Sean McVay tried an instant replay challenge, seeking a defensive pass interference call on the Browns following a third-down incompletion from Jared Goff to Brandin Cooks. It failed, as the non-call on the field stood, and the Rams have only one replay challenge for the remainder of the game. Perhaps it was a tiny measure of karma. It was the Rams, remember, who benefited from the pass interference non-call in the NFC title game in New Orleans that led to interference being reviewable by replay this season. (Rams 3, Browns 3 with 9:43 left in the 2nd quarter)
Browns drawn even: Cleveland got things moving on offense with an up-tempo approach that featured quarterback Baker Mayfield getting rid of the ball quickly and throwing shorter passes. That seemed to nullify the Rams’ pass rush. The Browns reached the L.A. 5-yard line but had to settle for a 23-yard field goal by kicker Austin Seibert. (Rams 3, Browns 3 with 11:41 left in the 2nd quarter)
Rams take an early lead: Both offenses have had a tough time getting started. But the Rams have the lead on a long-distance field goal by kicker Greg Zuerlein, from 53 yards. (Rams 3, Browns 0 with 4:06 left in the 1st quarter)
Good start for Cleveland defense: The Browns are missing five injured starters on defense, including all four members of their usual starting secondary. But Cleveland got off to a good start on defense by forcing a Rams’ punt. That came after the Browns also punted on the game’s opening possession. (Rams 0, Browns 0 with 10:33 left in the 1st quarter)