The Cleveland Browns have lost five games by six points or fewer in 2017; only the 4-11 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have more losses by such a close margin. (Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press)

The Cleveland Browns are on the precipice of history, and not in a good way. The team is 0-15 and one loss away from joining the 1960 Dallas Cowboys (0-11-1), the 1975 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-14), the 1982 Baltimore Colts (0-8-1 during a strike-shortened season) and the 2008 Detroit Lions (0-16) as the only teams in NFL history to go an entire season without a win.

Now, we wait and see how it ends for the Browns — they play the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road in Week 17 — but no matter what the outcome, the 2017 Browns deserve a better fate than one that labels them one of the worst NFL teams of all time.

Their defense, particularly against the run, has played well. Cleveland is allowing a league-low 3.3 yards per carry this season and has stopped 29 percent of rushers at or behind the line of scrimmage. Only the 13-2 Philadelphia Eagles (31 percent) have been better at stuffing the run this season. In fact, teams are scoring 5.7 points per game less than expected via the run after you factor in the down, distance and field position of each play. That’s good enough to put Cleveland’s run defense as the seventh-best since 2002, the year the league expanded to 32 teams. The 2010 New York Jets, by comparison, had a similar run defense and won 10 games that year.

The problem, of course, is the Browns’ woeful passing. Their 59.4 passer rating is the lowest in the NFL this season — when the league average is 87.4 — and they are rated as the worst-passing unit by the game charters at Pro Football Focus. However, eight other teams over the last 16 seasons have turned in worse passer ratings than the Browns, with each winning at least two games during the year.

Team Team passer rating League average passer rating
2005 49ers (4-12) 53.6 78.2
2008 Browns (4-12) 54.8 81.5
2009 Browns (5-11) 55.8 81.2
2006 Raiders (2-14) 56.2 78.5
2010 Panthers (2-14) 57.0 82.2
2002 Lions (3-13) 57.9 78.6
2009 Lions (2-14) 58.1 81.2
2003 Falcons (5-11) 58.7 76.6
2017 Browns (0-15) 59.4 85.6
2009 Buccaneers (3-13) 59.8 81.2

Cleveland’s point differential also suggests a better record. The Browns have scored 210 points while allowing 380, giving them a minus-172 point differential for the season. The 2008 Lions, by comparison, were outscored by 249 points through the first 15 games. Since 2002, teams with a point differential between minus-150 and minus-200 after 15 games played have won an average of 2.8 games during that span of the regular season. And five of Cleveland’s losses in 2017 were by a margin of six points or fewer; only the 4-11 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have more losses (seven) by such a close margin in 2017.

So is there any chance Cleveland will avoid an 0-16 fate? Using the same data that helped construct our power rankings — which highlights a team’s actual and expected win percentage for the year — the Browns have a two percent chance (50-to-1 odds) of upsetting the Steelers in Week 17, so it seems all but inevitable they will see their names etched in the record books for their futility. Which is a shame, because while they are far from being a Super Bowl contender, this team is much better than its record reflects.

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