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Look who’s in playoff hunt after Rams’ Week 13 win over the Browns

The Rams' Puka Nacua breaks into the secondary against the Cleveland Browns for a 70-yard touchdown.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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There is no denying it — the Rams look legit.

Coach Sean McVay, mired last season in a Super Bowl-hangover funk, once again is his positive-minded self.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford is orchestrating the offense like a seasoned Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

Record-breaking receiver Puka Nacua surpassed a franchise rookie record and Cooper Kupp once again is scoring touchdowns.

And don’t forget an Aaron Donald-led defense that is making crucial stops and forcing turnovers.

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A 36-19 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday at SoFi Stadium improved the surging Rams’ record to 6-6, extended their winning streak to three games and erased thoughts that they were imposters.

This is a playoff-worthy team.

Breaking down the notable numbers behind the Rams’ 36-19 home win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday — scoring and statistics.

Dec. 3, 2023

Only, of course, if the Rams close the deal.

“The best teams get better,” McVay said, “and I’ve seen that each of the last three weeks.”

The Rams are No. 8 in the NFC playoff race, one spot behind a postseason spot. They are tied with the No. 7 Green Bay Packers record-wise at 6-6 but trail via a tiebreaker because of a Week 9 loss in Green Bay.

The off week after a Nov. 5 loss to the Packers proved a great tonic for McVay and the Rams, who have since defeated the Seattle Seahawks, the Arizona Cardinals and the Browns (7-5).

The Rams have experienced 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 Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium.

Browns quarterback Joe Flacco is about to be sacked by Rams Aaron Donald and Kobie Turner, right, for a safety.
Browns quarterback Joe Flacco is about to be sacked by Rams Aaron Donald and Kobie Turner, right, for a safety in the fourth quarter.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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“You’ve got to prove it every week,” Stafford, who passed for three touchdowns, 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 entered Sunday primed to strengthen their playoff hopes after the 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 hold the tiebreaker against their NFC West rival.

The Rams will get a real 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.

“We’re just worried about the next ‘W’ right now,” said rookie nose tackle Kobie Turner, who teamed with Donald to sack Joe Flacco for a fourth-quarter safety. “And hopefully, at the end of the day, we’ll turn around and think [we] put ourselves in the best position.”

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Dec. 2, 2023

On Sunday, Nacua overcame injuries and produced a spectacular performance, Stafford continued his recent stellar effort and safety John Johnson made the game-turning play by intercepting a fourth-quarter pass. It was the latest big play by someone who signed a veteran-minimum contract to join the Rams.

Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon has been a stalwart, and receiver Demarcus Robinson stepped up against the Browns by catching 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.

Early in the game, Nacua broke Eddie Kennison’s 1996 team record for yards receiving by a rookie (924).

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, team officials announced Nacua as questionable to return because of cramping. But Nacua came back and caught a pass in front of the Browns’ bench, landing hard on his side.

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The Rams' Duke Shelley tackles Browns back Jerome Ford.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

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,” Nacua said, “but I was good.”

Nacua returned to start the second half and had a huge 31-yard gain on a jet sweep. He finished with four catches for 105 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for 34 yards. Nacua’s franchise rookie receiving record stands at 1,029 yards through Week 13.

“I just hope the guys know that I love playing this game of football and love being out there with them,” said Nacua, who has 77 receptions. “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.”

Johnson, Donald, Turner, Witherspoon, linebacker Ernest Jones and nose tackle Bobby Brown III were defensive players who made key plays against Flacco, a 38-year-old veteran who started in place of Dorian Thompson-Robinson with one week of preparation.

It was especially sweet for Johnson.

The seventh-year pro played four seasons for the Rams before cashing in and signing a huge contract with the Browns in 2021. He was released after last season, however, and signed with the Rams before training camp.

Rams rookie sensation Puka Nacua was hurt twice against the Browns but came back and surpassed 100 yards receiving again and broke a franchise record.

Dec. 4, 2023

The Rams led 20-19 when Johnson intercepted a long pass and returned it 42 yards.

“I tried to get a little saucy,” Johnson said, “but my wheels had flat tires.”

Johnson’s play set up Stafford’s touchdown pass to Kupp. It was the 2021 NFL offensive player of the year’s first touchdown catch since Oct. 15 against the Cardinals.

Rookie punter Ethan Evans has been outstanding, but the Rams need kicker Lucas Havrisik to be more consistent.

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If they continue to play well on offense and defense and shore up special teams, they can challenge in the NFC.

“All you want to do is get hot and get your opportunity at the tournament,” Johnson said, “and go from there.”

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