CLEVELAND — The shorthanded Browns flirted with upsetting the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams on “Sunday Night Football,” but their weaknesses haunted them in the fourth quarter of a 20-13 loss at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Desperate for a touchdown in crunch time, the Browns went three-and-out during a possession starting at their 10-yard line with 6:29 left in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Baker Mayfield was sacked twice in the sequence, by defensive Aaron Donald on first down and by linebacker Clay Matthews III on third down.
But the Browns (1-2) received another shot after linebacker Joe Schobert deflected a Jared Goff pass intended for receiver Robert Woods, allowing safety Juston Burris to intercept the pass and return 14 yards with 2:54 remaining. Burris fell down after he ran into Schobert.
Mayfield’s passes of 27 yards to receiver Jarvis Landry on third-and-15 from the Browns’ 45 and 16 yards to receiver Damion Ratley on second-and-7 at the Rams’ 25, plus Donald’s roughing the passer penalty on that play help set up the Browns with first-and-goal at the 4.
Mayfield threw three consecutive incomplete passes, then a game-clinching interception with 27 seconds left. On fourth-and-goal, Mayfield threw under pressure toward Ratley, but safety Jon Johnson III picked off the pass in the end zone.
Mayfield went 18-of-36 passing for 195 yards and a touchdown with the interception. He posted a passer rating of 64 and took three sacks.
Goff went 24-of-38 passing for 269 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. He took two sacks and posted a passer rating of 79.8. He improved to 6-1 against fellow quarterbacks who were drafted first overall. Goff was the No. 1 overall pick in 2016, Mayfield the top choice in 2018.
The Browns’ entire starting secondary — cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams (hamstrings), strong safety Morgan Burnett (quadriceps) and free safety Damarious Randall (concussion) — was inactive.
With right offensive tackle Chris Hubbard (foot) inactive and tight end David Njoku (broken wrist, concussion) and starting linebacker and captain Christian Kirksey (chest) recently placed on injured reserve, a total of seven Browns starters were out. And it would be eight if you’re counting No. 3 wide receiver Rashard Higgins (knee).
But excuses aren’t tolerated in the NFL, and the harsh reality is Browns coach Freddie Kitchens is 0-2 at home. Meanwhile, the Rams (3-0) improved to 9-0 in the regular season versus AFC opponents under coach Sean McVay.
The Rams took a 17-13 with 12:48 left in the fourth quarter when Goff capped an eight-play, 72-yard drive with a 6-yard touchdown pass to receiver Cooper Kupp, who was wide open in the front of the end zone on third-and-goal.
On the next series, Kitchens gambled by going for it on fourth-and-9 at the Rams’ 40. And the play Kitchens called was puzzling. Mayfield handed off to running back Nick Chubb in shotgun, and Chubb was stopped for a 2-yard gain and a turnover on downs with 9:14 remaining in the final quarter.
The Rams used the opportunity to seize the momentum. After Browns cornerback TJ Carrie broke up a Goff pass intended for receiver Josh Reynolds on third-and-1 from the Cleveland 19, Greg Zuerlein made a 37-yard field goal at the end of a nine-play, 43-yard drive, giving the Rams a 20-13 lead with 6:37 to play.
The Rams captured a 10-6 lead by opening the second half with a 10-play, 75-yard scoring march. Kupp was wide open in the front left corner of the end zone when he caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Goff, allowing the Rams to take the lead with 10:40 left in the third quarter.
In their first appearance on “Sunday Night Football” since Sept. 14, 2008, the Browns answered right away with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive.
On third-and-13 at the Rams 46, Mayfield beat a blitz with a perfectly timed screen pass to Chubb, who rumbled for 30 yards and a first down.
Then the Browns faced first-and-goal after Rams cornerback Troy Hill was penalized for pass interference while guarding Landry in the end zone. On the next snap, a 1-yard touchdown run by Chubb was negated by an illegal shift penalty on Beckham.
The flag pushed the Browns back to first-and-goal at the 6, but they fought back. On third-and-goal, Mayfield faked a handoff to Chubb out of shotgun and threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Demetrius Harris, who was wide open in the back of the end zone. Austin Seibert made the extra point to give the Browns a 13-10 advantage with 4:37 left in the third quarter.
Chubb gained 55 yards during the drive, which ended with the first passing TD surrendered by the Rams this season. Chubb finished the game with 23 carries for 96 yards (4.2 average) and four catches for 35 yards.
On the ensuing series, Carrie intercepted a pass Goff intended for receiver Brandin Cooks at the Cleveland 49 with 3:31 remaining in the third quarter. But the Browns went three-and-out instead of capitalizing.
Earlier, they took advantage of another turnover.
Defensive end Myles Garrett strip-sacked quarterback Goff, Schobert recovered the fumble in the waning moments of the first half and the Browns turned the takeaway into three points and a 6-3 halftime lead.
With the Rams facing third-and-11 at their 35, Garrett hit Goff’s right arm to knock the ball out as he tried to throw. Then Schobert returned the fumble 21 yards before running back Todd Gurley tackled him at the Rams’ 17 with 18 seconds left in the first half.
After Mayfield threw three incomplete passes, the Browns settled for Seibert’s 35-yard field goal, which he made with time expired in the second quarter.