CLEVELAND — Once the dust settled at FirstEnergy Stadium following the Los Angeles Rams’ 20-13 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday night, the messages seeping out of the home and visiting locker rooms weren’t all that different.
Both coaches expressed pride over their players’ effort. Both spoke critically of themselves and declared that they had to be better. The players on both sides praised their teammates and echoed their coaches by reiterating how hard they had played from start to finish. They also predicted that Sunday night’s outcome would follow them throughout the remaining 13 weeks of the season while serving both as motivation and instructional opportunities.
The main difference: L.A.’s players spoke with a degree of satisfaction over the narrow victory, which came down to a John Johnson III diving catch for an interception in the end zone with 33 seconds left on the clock. The Browns — whose offense reached the 3-yard-line before a distressed Baker Mayfield chucked the ball to the end zone, and to Jackson — acknowledged that they aren’t there, yet. They knew the Rams, now 3-0, made only a handful of more elevating plays over the course of the game. They themselves, now 1-2, had failed to capitalize on their opportunities.
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Rams defenders tackle Browns running back Nick Chubb. (Photo: Scott Galvin, USA TODAY Sports)
The score was close, and many statistical categories were even closer.
The Rams had 20 first downs, the Browns had 18. The Rams ran 64 offensive plays, the Browns ran 63. L.A. had seven penalties for 50 yards. Cleveland had eight for 60. The Rams committed three turnovers to the Browns’ one. But on three trips inside the 20, L.A. scored twice, while the Browns managed just one touchdown on four trips.
You’ve heard all the cliches about football being a game of inches. The adage is true.
With one do-over play here or there, the Browns might have pulled off the victory.
Believe it or not, these teams aren’t all that dissimilar.
Both teams have talented young quarterbacks and dynamic wide-receiving units. Both have aggressive and creative offensive play-callers. Both squads have imposing defenses led by well-respected coordinators.
Both teams have good depth. The Rams boast one of the deepest rosters in the league, while the Browns, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2002, remain in the building stages. But their depth isn’t shabby. Heck, Cleveland’s defense held a prolific L.A. offense to just 20 points despite missing four starters.
But the biggest difference between the Rams and Browns is that L.A.’s players and coaches have been there, while the Browns are trying to find their way.
The Rams have traveled that path where they had to unlearn a loser’s mentality and habits. They’ve figured out what it’s like to maintain focus and avoid complacency once the process transitions to modest success. They’ve largely learned how to turn potential and promise into reality. And in most cases, they’ve learned how to channel shortcomings and heartbreaking defeats into fuel for further success.
The Rams understand persistence, which is why after stumbling out to a slow start Sunday and trailing 6-3 a halftime, they came out with improved execution in the third quarter. It’s why, when their offense hit another lull, their defense kept them in the game. It’s why, despite enduring the rigors of two East Coast trips in three weeks, they figured out how to press through the mental and physical toll of that schedule, and proceeded to win. Yes, it was ugly, but sometimes that’s what it takes.
And when they return to team headquarters for film-study sessions in a couple of days, the Rams coaches and players will conduct honest self-evaluations, pinpoint their problem areas and set out to correct them.
For now, the Browns largely know what they have to do to become a good team. But it’s a matter of figuring out how to actually take those steps.
Rams players say disappointments like the double-digit loss to Atlanta in the 2017 wild card round or the 13-3 heartbreaker to New England in last winter’s Super Bowl have forged this year’s team into a unit that’s better equipped to win those gritty games.
That’s what the Rams did Sunday night. Twice they had opportunities to slam the door on the Browns, but instead committed errors that gave Cleveland life. Any one of the three turnovers or the missed field goal could have caused the Rams to wilt.
“That wasn’t our standard today,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth told USA TODAY Sports. “We could’ve finished that game and put it out of reach. But you’ve got to feel good about our defense that can sit on the 5-yard-line and do that against a special offensive group.”
Each gritty performance gives the Rams even more confidence to carry over into the next brush with adversity, Whitworth said.
And that’s the point that the Browns want to eventually reach.
Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. spoke admiringly about the Rams after the game. The Browns knew how talented the Rams were entering the game, and they experienced what it’s like to face off with such a resilient bunch. And, they hope it rubs off.
“You never want to lose, but games like this, it really shows who you are,” Beckham told a swarm of reporters in an otherwise empty Browns locker room. “We fought against one of the best teams in the league. Not to pat ourselves on the back like we played a good game, but we were really in it. And it’s not like we shouldn’t have been in it. We believed that we should’ve been in it and should’ve won. It just wasn’t the outcome. So I think later on in the season, tough games like this, we’ll find a way to win. It’s just a lesson learned for us.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
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