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Winners & Losers: John Johnson gets sweet revenge against former team

Rams are squarely in NFC playoff picture after third-straight win

Cleveland Browns v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Things seemed bleak for the Los Angeles Rams nearly a month ago when they lost a mostly non-competitive game against the Green Bay Packers to extend their losing streak to three games and move to 3-6 on the season. Sean McVay and his team have followed up that three-game slide with a new winning streak of the same length and still counting—and Los Angeles is squarely back in the NFC playoff picture heading into the final sprint. The Rams took down the Cleveland Browns 36-19 and are now back to .500 on the season.

The game felt much closer than the final score seems to suggest, but overall the offense did just enough to outpace a Joe Flacco-led Browns attack and the defense came through in the most critical moments.

While the score was still within a single possession, Rams safety John Johnson read Flacco’s eyes to undercut a deep pass that he intercepted and returned deep into Browns territory. It had to be a feeling of sweet revenge for Johnson against his former team, especially considering he was released this offseason two seasons into the three-year, $34M free agenct contract he signed with Cleveland in 2021. The takeaway couldn’t have come at a better time for Los Angeles, as Matthew Stafford connected with Cooper Kupp shortly after to extend their lead and effectively put the game out of reach.

Who else stood out on an individual level in this game? Let’s dive in.

Winners

John Johnson, DB

In addition to the aforementioned interception, Johnson also contributed six total tackles (second on the team to MLB Ernest Jones) and two pass breakups. The veteran has been more involved on defense of late and he certainly seems to be building momentum. Can Johnson be a mainstay on defense as the Rams try to secure a playoff berth?

Puka Nacua, WR

At times it didn’t seem the Rams had much going offensively outside of what Nacua was able to contribute. He and Stafford split the deep safeties on a beautiful, 70-yard catch and run to secure the first touchdown. Nacua also earned two important milestones by edging out Eddie Kennison for the most receiving yards by a Rams rookie and for crossing the 1,000-yard barrier for the first time in his career.

Nacua finished with four receptions for 105 yards, a touchdown, and another 34 yards on the ground. He had a long rushing attempt negated by a holding call on Demarcus Robinson.

Most importantly, Nacua left the game with a rib/shoulder injury just before halftime but he was back on the field after the break. Initially it seemed like a potentially serious, long-term injury and it’s positive that he was able to play through the issue.

Matthew Stafford, QB

The offense poured on the points in the second half, but for most of the game production seemed to be challenging to come by for Los Angeles. Stafford deserves credit for keeping the team on track and doing enough to stay ahead of Flacco and the Browns offense. He was aggressive for most of the game and had several nice downfield attempts without putting the ball in harm’s way very often.

Stafford completed 22 of 37 passes (60%) for 279 yards and three touchdowns.

Sean McVay, Head Coach

Even with a hobbled Myles Garrett, this was not a game where the Rams could afford to become one dimensional on offense. While the ground attack wasn’t consistently effective, Sean McVay remained committed and deployed a balanced attack. Kyren Williams ran 21 times for 88 yards and a score. Royce Freeman and Nacua also had carries.

LA’s head coach and play caller has been on a hot streak of late. McVay also deserves a ton of credit for having this young but talented team in the playoff hunt late into the season, though time will tell if the Rams can truly secure a spot in the tournament.

Bobby Brown, DT

Brown made one of the most impressive individual plays you’ll see from a nose tackle and drove C Ethan Pocic deep into the backfield to stop Cleveland’s running back for a big loss on a toss play.

Demarcus Robinson, WR

Robinson played nearly twice as many offensive snaps as starter Tutu Atwell last week and he was often in the lineup towards the end of the game this week too. There’s probably not too much to read into here, other than Robinson gives LA a more physical blocking presence in the running game, and the Rams have spent the fourth quarter salting away leads in their last two matchups.

Robinson also made impacts through the air. He caught a 30-yard pass to move the Rams into the red zone as well as a key touchdown in the second half. In total Robinson finished with four grabs for 55 yards and the score.

While the box score doesn’t reflect positively on Atwell (one catch, nine yards), it’s worth pointing out that he once again drew a long defensive pass interference call to setup a field goal attempt on the Rams’ opening drive.

Losers

Brycen Hopkins, TE

A healthy inactive for the second week in a row, it’s clear that Hopkins has fallen behind Hunter Long and rookie Davis Allen on the depth chart. We’ve seen Hopkins make plays when given the opportunity, but he’s spent the majority of his Rams career on the sidelines. What does the future have in store for him with free agency upcoming at the conclusion of the season.

Cooper Kupp, WR

While Cooper Kupp secured a key touchdown in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach for the Browns, he wasn’t a major factor in the offense on Sunday. Kupp was targeted eight times and caught six passes for 39 yards and the score. While six receptions doesn’t necessary suggest a bad day, Kupp no longer feels like a lethal threat in this offense—and when Nacua was out the Rams desperately needed someone else to step up.

Are defenses taking away Kupp? Maybe the Rams are deploying him in a different manner and mostly running him on underneath routes. Is it possible that Kupp is no longer a difference maker at the position?

Lucas Havrisik, K

The Rams moved on from Brett Maher earlier this season, but Lukas Havrisik has not done much to solidify the kicker position for Los Angeles. He had a tough outing last week against the Arizona Cardinals. He missed another kick this week versus the Browns.

How patient will the Rams be with their kicker? Do they have any better options?

With the Rams back in the NFC playoff hunt, it would be difficult to watch their postseason hopes die at the leg of an underperforming kicker.