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Why every finals team can win the 2022 AFL premiership… and why they can’t

18 teams has been cut down to eight, and after a week of waiting, the AFL finals series is now upon us.

And while the 2022 premiers will almost invariably hail from the top four of Geelong, Melbourne, Sydney and Collingwood, history is made to be rewritten, and all of Fremantle, Brisbane, Richmond and even Western Bulldogs from the bottom half of the eight will give themselves a puncher’s chance of storming through September the hard way.

Here is why all eight teams can claim premiership glory on September 24… and why they can’t.

1. Geelong

Why they can: They’re the best team in it. The Cats are minor premiers for good reason, and with an 18-4 home-and-away record, have had the most successful regular season since Hawthorn in 2013. With both the third-best attack and defence, just a few points off top spot in both regards, Chris Scott’s team is comfortably the most balanced in the competition. Put simply, you don’t tend to win 13 games on the trot unless you’re a serious footy club.

>> READ: ‘The Cats can be beaten… but good luck trying’

Why they can’t: They give teams a look. The Cats haven’t been without challengers this season: nine times in 2022 they have conceded a massive flood of goals, such as the eight of nine third-quarter majors they let in back in Round 3 against qualifying final opponents Collingwood. They were able to win that game, and most of the others, but the flag favourites do have periods of vulnerability spring up quite a lot for such a successful team. That tendency to quickly let in stacks of goals has been a constant thorn in their side through years of finals disappointments: will it cruel the Cats again?

2. Melbourne

Why they can: Home ground advantage. The Dees are the only side in the finals guaranteed to not leave their own turf for the rest of the season – they host the Swans at the MCG in their qualifying final, and then will be the home team in either a semi or preliminary final. Their worst case scenario is an away prelim, but given they’ll face a fellow Victorian team in Geelong or Collingwood, that will also be at the ‘G, as will the grand final. That’s an awfully big leg-up to give a reigning premier who, despite looking below their best for much of the season, still heads into September second on the ladder.

READ: ‘The Dees have a serious problem. It’s bye bye back-to-back unless they fix it’

Why they can’t: Pressure, pressure, pressure. A hallmark of their rise in 2021, the Demons have dropped from third to dead last in the AFL’s pressure ratings. Against fellow finalists – except for Brisbane – they have been made to pay for it, most obviously in laying zero tackles inside attacking 50 in their Round 19 loss to the Western Bulldogs. Finals are built on pressure – it’s why Richmond, the most aggressive team in the game’s history in this regard, has three flags to show for it. Can the Demons go back to back, already a fiendishly difficult task, with such an obvious and vital deficiency?

Christian Petracca of the Demons celebrates a goal

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

3. Sydney

Why they can: They’re big-game titans. The Swans have a 6-2 record against their fellow finalists in 2022 – the equal-best record of the top eight alongside Geelong (who they beat back in Round 2). What’s more, they haven’t lost to one since Brisbane toppled them in Round 7. Along the way, they’ve trumped Melbourne at the MCG, the opponent and venue of the qualifying final, as well as taken down Fremantle away from home, massacred the Western Bulldogs and emphatically ended Collingwood’s winning run. Perhaps only the Cats head into September in better nick.

>> READ: ‘How magnificent Swans exposed the Dees again’

Why they can’t: They’re unproven. This is a very different Swans team from the one that was a near-permanent finalist in the mid-2010s; only Fremantle of the current top eight has gone longer since winning a final. This young group got a taste of September action last season, ending in heartbreak with a one-point elimination final loss to a clearly inferior team in GWS. The Swans’ brand of exciting, free-flowing football hasn’t yet been tested in the fire of finals, when the pressure is at its maximum and ferocity at the contest is the order of the day. Potentially having to face the last two premiers in Melbourne and Richmond back to back in the first fortnight of finals, the Swans have the mother of all litmus tests coming up.

4. Collingwood

Why they can: They’re 2022’s protagonists. If this season was a movie, the Magpies would be the central character. They’ll probably either win the flag, or lose the grand final but realise in the last quarter that the real premiership was the friends they made along the way. The most successful team at close finishes in the game’s history, the Pies will need to be put away by three quarter time for any opposition to feel comfortable. Premierships are as often won by the teams that own the big moments as the ones that dominate the home-and-away season; with at least two finals to come in front of 70,000 screaming fans at the MCG, a Pies flag would likely be regarded as the greatest in their long and proud history.

>> READ: ‘Langdon wasn’t wrong… but the Pies’ ‘one trick’ is just that good’

Why they can’t: Their luck will run out. The Magpies’ percentage of 104.3 is the lowest by far of any of the top eight, and the third-lowest of any top-four team this century. Their close-game success enabled them to win enough to earn a double chance, but they will still need to win three finals against the best teams around them to claim a 16th premiership. Fans say they’re clutch, critics say they’re lucky: we’re about to find out which one it is.

5. Fremantle

Why they can: Defence wins premierships. Only Melbourne – by three points – has conceded less than the Dockers this season, the cornerstone of their return to finals action. They have strangled the life out of Geelong at their GMHBA Stadium fortress, restricting them to a season-low score of 66 that included just one goal in the second and third quarters combined; as well as Melbourne at the MCG in a coming of age performance a few weeks later. Teams with defensive steel tend to fare better in finals than those who favour all-out attack – looking at you, Brisbane – and they don’t come much steelier than Freo.

>> READ: ‘The best-coached team of 2022 is a September dark horse’

Why they can’t: Who’s kicking the goals? For all their defensive might, the Dockers have scored 100 points fewer than any other top-eight side in 2022. At just a tick over 79 points a game, no team in modern history save for Richmond in the shortened-quarters 2020 season has been as low-scoring. Remarkably, every other finalist has at least two players with a greater goal tally than the Dockers’ most prolific forward, Rory Lobb (34 majors). Making things worse is Matt Taberner’s hamstring injury that has him in doubt for the elimination final. Even if defence does indeed win premierships, you’ve still got to be able to score.

Will Brodie celebrates a goal with his Fremantle teammates. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

6. Brisbane

Why they can: Their best is lethal. Perhaps only Geelong have had a higher ceiling than the Lions in 2022 – when they’re on, they’re unstoppable. Against Richmond and Carlton in recent weeks, the Lions have surged to massive leads on the back of relentless attacking football, dominating in midfield and feeding their unmatched array of goalkicking options, from talls Joe Daniher, Eric Hipwood and Dan McStay to smalls Charlie Cameron and Zac Bailey. Only Richmond have been higher-scoring than the Lions this season, so until they’re officially eliminated, there will always be the threat of a brutal Brisbane burst for rivals to contend with.

>> READ: ‘They’re not the Dees, but the Lions are still damn good’

Why they can’t: They’re still so flaky. The Lions have won only three of their eight games this season against the other finalists – only the Western Bulldogs have fared worse. And two of those victories came in the first seven rounds, with the Dogs the only top-eight team they have conquered since then. Humiliated twice by Melbourne in the home-and-away season, the Lions just can’t be relied upon to lock down defensively with enough zeal to keep other quality sides at bay, ranking 10th for points against. That’s a concern for any side – but for a team that has won just one of six finals under Chris Fagan, four of those defeats coming at the Gabba, it’s clear the Lions will need to change radically to prove themselves capable of making any September impact.

7. Richmond

Why they can: They’re made for September. Enough of the Tigers’ triple-premiership team remains intact for this team to have finals experience coming out the wazoo. Their style of play, albeit changed somewhat from their 2017-2020 glory days, is tried and proven to succeed in finals footy; plus, their reputation carries a heavy weight. No side is going to want to face Richmond this finals series; and having won 11 and drawn one of their last 16 games, with their four losses by a combined margin of 15 points, they are significantly better than their ladder position of seventh would suggest.

READ: ‘How the Tigers got their groove back’

Why they can’t: They beat themselves. In the second half of the season, the Tigers’ biggest threat has been… the Tigers. In all four of their losses since Round 6, plus their draw with Fremantle, Richmond have succumbed despite holding a lead at some stage in the last quarter. After losing the unlosable twice in a row to Gold Coast and North Melbourne, they were described as the dumbest side in footy (okay, it was by me), while they threw away two points just as disastrously against the Dockers. And if they can mess things up against non-finalists like the Suns and Kangaroos, it’s surely too much to ask of them to not stuff it at some point in four sudden-death finals against quality opposition.

8. Western Bulldogs

Why they can: They’ve done it before. Yes, it was a completely different Bulldogs team that rose from seventh to claim the most unlikely premiership ever won in 2016: just nine players from the grand final 22 are still on the list, with even fewer first-choice players now. But as recently as last year, the Dogs stormed into the big dance from outside the top four, winning three finals on the road in the process. Sound familiar? Luke Beveridge’s team thrive on being the underdogs, and going into this September with less to lose than any other team, will probably relish being the hunters.

>> READ: ‘Bevo’s Bulldogs are broken’

Why they can’t: They can’t defend. Forget the top eight – no team in the competition this year has been worse defensively than the Dogs. Yes, they’re ‘only’ eleventh for points against – still the lowest of any side still in contention – but they have given up a competition-most 184 scoring shots from chains started in their attacking 50. Basically, if a team wins the ball in defence, they’re a better chance at scoring from it against the Dogs than against anyone else – even North Melbourne, even West Coast. With Richmond (153 scoring shots) the only finals team within sniffing distance of the Dogs’ ugly number, something would have to change substantially for them to so much as win a final, never mind four.

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