It’s the tightest end to an AFL home and away season in years. Here’s how it all might shake out


It’s a final round so tantalising it could have been plucked out of the dreams of Gillon McLachlan himself.

No fewer than 12 teams go into round 23 of the 2021 AFL season with something to play for. Six are bidding for two spots in the eight, another six have eyes on the top four, and four are still realistic chances of sneaking into the top two. 

Sounds confusing? That’s because it is.

Across eight footy matches this weekend (only Adelaide -North Melbourne is a true dead rubber at this stage), the story of the season will suddenly become much clearer. The chances of some teams will be enhanced greatly, and entirely extinguished for others.

You’ve probably already run the sums for your team, but to get the most out of what is going to be a wild weekend of footy, it’s worth getting the full picture.

So how might the top four look?

Incredibly, all of the current top four teams are playing each other this weekend. It’s a little mini finals preview that will go a long way to deciding where the premiership cup ends up this year.

A group of Geelong players gather around a teammate who has just scored a goal.
The Cats could be a win away from the minor premiership.(

AAP: James Ross


The Bulldogs and Port Adelaide, currently fourth and third respectively, play on Friday night at Docklands. Geelong and Melbourne, currently second and first respectively, play on Saturday night at Kardinia Park.

From those games, if:

  • Melbourne and Port Adelaide both win, Melbourne will finish first and Port Adelaide second. Geelong will finish third and play Port in Adelaide. The Demons would play the Bulldogs, or possibly Brisbane or Sydney should they win their games by enough, in their qualifying final.
  • Melbourne and the Bulldogs both win, Melbourne will finish first and the Bulldogs second. The margins of defeat and any subsequent change in percentage would determine if Geelong or Port Adelaide would finish third or fourth and their first finals opponents.
  • Geelong and Port Adelaide both win, Geelong would finish first and Port Adelaide second. Melbourne would finish third and play Port in Adelaide, while the Bulldogs would finish fourth unless Brisbane or Sydney win by enough to overturn the percentage deficit.
  • Geelong and the Bulldogs both win, Geelong would finish first and Melbourne would finish second. The Bulldogs would finish third and play Melbourne in week one, while Port would finish fourth and play Geelong.
Two Port Adelaide AFL players shake hands as they celebrate a goal against St Kilda.
Port Adelaide could finish anywhere between first and fourth, depending on this weekend’s results.(

AAP: James Ross


The wildcards, you might have noticed, are the Lions and Swans. Both are assured finals places, but can still theoretically nick a top-four spot too.

The Lions are playing the Eagles in a game they are expected to win and, should the Bulldogs lose, would not need much to overturn the difference in percentage required to move into fourth.

Sydney, on the other hand, would likely need to win by 100 points and have the Bulldogs lose by about the same margin.

Two Brisbane Lions AFL players high five each other after a goal was kicked.
A top four spot is still a possibility for Brisbane.(

AAP: Dave Hunt


What about those last spots in the top eight?

At the moment, the Giants are occupying seventh spot with 42 points, Essendon are in eighth and ahead of West Coast and Fremantle only on percentage, and both Richmond and St Kilda are still mathematically possibilities albeit a game further back.

An AFL player in orange leaps into the air to contest ball possession against a player in black and red in stadium
The Giants and Bombers are in the box seats for a finals spot, but need to win their last games.(

AAP: Dave Hunt


All of these teams remain a chance to play finals. Here’s how they can all do it:

  • GWS will play finals… if they beat Carlton. They can also afford to lose, so long as Essendon and West Coast don’t both beat Collingwood and Brisbane respectively. The Giants are very well placed, but can’t move any higher than seventh.
  • Essendon will play finals… if they beat Collingwood. They can also afford to lose, as long as both West Coast and Fremantle lose their games too.
  • West Coast will play finals… if they beat Brisbane and Collingwood beats Essendon or Carlton beats GWS. Even then, they’d have to have to hope Fremantle’s winning margin over St Kilda isn’t significantly greater than theirs. But the Eagles’ first (and biggest) problem is going to be beating the Lions at the Gabba.
  • Fremantle will play finals… if they beat St Kilda and at least two of GWS, Essendon and West Coast lose their games. The Dockers are coming from a long way back, but thanks to their derby heroics they are arguably better placed than their cross-town rivals with a game to play.
  • Richmond will play finals… if West Coast, Essendon and Fremantle all lose and the Tigers beat Hawthorn by a lot. Like, 100 points or so.
  • St Kilda will play finals… if West Coast, Essendon and Richmond all lose and the Saints win by many hundreds of points. In that event, they would probably also need Essendon to lose to Collingwood by many hundreds of points also, such is the gap in percentage between the Saints and Bombers. We’re throwing them a bone by including them in this, to be honest.

Clear as mud then. As confusing and convoluted as everything is right now, it’s also pretty damn exciting that so much can be on the line a week before finals even begin.

A group of Fremantle players run to Caleb Serong in celebration after his amazing goal.
Freo’s win over West Coast has kept the door ajar for one more week.(

AAP: Richard Wainwright


The abandonment of the pre-finals bye week means some team selections may be made with an eye on next week, but the stakes are much too high for almost all of these clubs for these games to be phoned in.

The finals will still prove the ultimate test, but this weekend is going to be crucial for setting the stage.


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