CLEVELAND — Backed up to their own goal line, the Rams buckled down.
Safety John Johnson III intercepted Baker Mayfield’s fourth-down pass with 27 seconds left as Los Angeles escaped with a 20-13 win Sunday night over the short-handed Cleveland Browns, who gave the defending NFC champions all they could handle.
Cooper Kupp caught two touchdown passes from Jared Goff and the Rams (3-0) stopped Mayfield on four straight plays from the 4-yard line in the final minute.
The Rams (3-0) remained unbeaten — and perfect against AFC teams in the regular season under coach Sean McVay — by barely holding back the Browns (1-2), who were missing their entire starting secondary and still took the Rams to the final snaps.
“Unbelievable,” McVay said. “It was really a great job by them. I just thought to be able to regather themselves. Four straight downs and fighting through it. They locked it down big time. It was just incredible.”
On the Browns’ final play, Mayfield, who was under pressure most of the night from Aaron Donald and Clay Matthews III, tried to force a pass to the right corner for Damion Ratley, but Johnson made the pick.
“It was a fight for the ball,” Johnson said. “He wanted it, but I had to have it.”
The Browns showed they can hang with one of the NFL’s elite teams. However, their star-studded offense remains out of sync, Cleveland had too many penalties and first-year coach Freddie Kitchens made a questionable decision on fourth down in the fourth quarter.
Kitchens also lamented not running the ball once in the final series, which began with Cleveland having all three timeouts.
“I should have ran it one time,” he said. “That is why I am kicking myself ... . ... If you are looking to blame somebody, blame me. Do not blame any of our players. Do not blame any of our other coaches. Just blame me because I can take it. Just blame me. Go write your article and say that I messed the game up.
“Go write your article and say that it is my fault that things are not looking like it did last year because it is.”
Kupp underwent surgery on his left knee and missed the final six games last season, as well as the Rams’ run to the Super Bowl. But he’s back, giving Goff an additional target and McVay more firepower to work with. McVay is 9-0 against the AFC, with his only loss coming against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
Kupp finished with a career-high 11 receptions for 102 yards, but credited Goff for the two scores.
“It mostly was Jared being able to stay alive in the pocket and making some great throws in tight windows,” Kupp said. “He has a lot of trust in me, being in the right place at the right time.”
Greg Zuerlein kicked two field goals for the Rams.
Mayfield threw one TD pass — a 2-yarder to tight end Demetrius Harris — but isn’t playing with the same confidence he showed as a rookie. He finished 18 of 36 for 195 yards and was sacked three times, twice in a three-play span in the fourth by Donald (his first this season) and Matthews, who had two sacks.
Goff’s second TD pass to Kupp gave the Rams a 17-13 lead with 12:48 left. After a false start penalty moved the Rams back to the 6, Goff hit Kupp streaking across the end zone virtually uncovered.
The Browns marched to the Rams’ 40 and stalled. But instead of punting on fourth-and-9, Kitchens went for it and Nick Chubb was stopped for just 2 yards and the Rams took over.
“Bad call,” Kitchens said.
Cleveland, though, caught a break when safety Juston Burris intercepted Goff with 2:46 left. Mayfield completed a 27-yard pass on third-and-15 and drove to the Rams’ 4, but he threw four straight incompletions as the comeback came up short.
The Browns came in battered and bruised. They were missing eight starters, including their entire defensive secondary and it was such a desperate situation that Burris, who was claimed Friday off waivers from Oakland, started and played the entire game.
“The defense played out of their minds,” Mayfield said.
Although they came up short, the Browns weren’t too discouraged after playing with the Rams.
“We matched up well against them,” Mayfield said. “I do not think it is like they are that much better than us. I think they are a great team, but we have to do our job. When you look at everything that happened tonight, if we do our job, I think we handle business.”
Donald made four tackles, including his first sack. He was also flagged for a personal foul after hitting Mayfield on the head.
“I’ve been improving each week and that’s what I like,” said the two-time reigning AP Defensive Player of the Year, who was listed as questionable with a back injury, but said it is actually a strained oblique.
“It’s not my back, but I’m good, really,” he said.
Clay Matthews, a steady and popular linebacker for 16 seasons with the Browns, was inducted into the team’s ring of honor at halftime. Matthews was a four-time Pro Bowler, played in 278 games and had 76.5 sacks. He’s a semifinalist this year for the third time to be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
His son, Clay, who is in his first season with the Rams, emerged from the locker room at the end of the ceremony and hugged his dad.
Rams: host Tampa Bay next Sunday. The Rams have won the last five matchups between the teams.
Browns: visit Baltimore on Sunday. AFC North rivals split their two games last season.