I went back through the last 20 full seasons (excluding the COVID-shortened 2020 season) to give you some statistical likelihoods of the current top eight teams remaining there for September and the teams below them jumping into finals.
The analysis starts with the Essendon 2000 premiership season and runs through the 2019 Richmond premiership season. We’ll look at what the historical probabilities are for each of the 2021 teams with nine games to go.
The top three
Melbourne, Western Bulldogs, Geelong
Here’s the short answer: in the last 20 years, no team sitting in the top three with nine games to go has missed finals. First place teams have a 95 per cent chance of maintaining that double chance (top four), and the only miss was Port Adelaide in 2014.
The Power were first at 11-2, a game ahead of eventual grand finalists Hawthorn and Sydney, but fell to fifth at 14-8 after going 3-6 over their last nine games. They made it to the preliminary finals, but the Hawks beat them by three on route to the second of their three straight premierships. In fact, 16 of those 20 first place teams kept their top two position at season’s end, including ten of 13 with at least 11 wins at this stage.
For the second- and third-placed clubs, there is a 70 per cent probability that they’ll maintain a top-four position after Round 23. Fourteen of the 20 teams in each of their positions have done so since the turn of the millennium.
The Bulldogs, at 10-3, have 15 teams to follow that had ten wins at this stage, and 13 of them (87 per cent) kept their top-four position while eight of them stayed in the top two (53 per cent). Geelong also has a 70 per cent probability as a third-place team of hanging on to their double chance; oddly, having ten wins actually brings the chances down slightly – just five of eight such teams have finished top four (63 per cent).
The difference between the two is that the second-place team has a 50-50 shot at a top two spot, while the third-place team – which would have to pass a team ahead of them – only has a 35 per cent chance. Ten teams out of 20 in the Bulldogs’ spot have maintained or improved their placement by season’s end, including six of the last nine (though not the last two full season examples: the 2019 Pies were 10-3 but fell to fourth, while the 2018 Swans were tied with Richmond at 10-3, and then ended four games adrift).
Basically, these three teams are in great shape.
Make me a double
Brisbane, Port Adelaide
The Lions and Power, with nine wins each, sit in fourth and fifth, respectively. Over the last 20 years, only one team in each position has reached the top two in the last nine weeks – in 2004, Port were fourth at 9-4 before finishing the season 17-5 in first place on route to their only premiership.
In 2012, Adelaide were in fifth by percentage (but really in a four-way tie for second at 10-3) and finished in second alone at 17-5.
However, this season’s 9-4 clubs are each about 50-50 to land in the top four and get that double chance. According to recent history, Brisbane also has a 90 per cent probability to make finals, while Port’s odds are still a full 70 per cent and, for fifth-placed teams with at least nine wins, the chances are six out of seven (86 per cent).
As different as finishing fourth and fifth are after Round 23, the percentages for the two teams in those two places right now are facing about the same odds coming down the stretch.
The bottom of the top
Sydney, West Coast, Richmond
It’s a good time to point out that the percentages we’re calculating are strictly based on the historical precedents of the last 20 full seasons and have nothing to do with the capabilities of the teams themselves.
Most tipsters looking at these three teams would give the Tigers the best chance of landing in the top four, mostly because of their recent history, and say the youthful Swans are most probable to drop out of finals.
Shane Edwards and Jack Graham (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)
However, of the five teams that moved from sixth, seventh, or eighth into a top two position over the last 20 seasons, four of them started in sixth – where the Swans currently nest. Of the ten that made it to a top-four position, six began in sixth, while two each came from seventh and eighth.
But, if all you’re worried about is making finals, all three clubs have history on their side. The sixth-placed club has remained in the top eight 18 of 20 times – far more often than the fifth-place team has, in fact!
The only exceptions, though, were also 8-5; the 2014 Magpies, who fell to 11-11 and finished a game out of finals in 11th, and the 2008 Lions, who only won two more games and ended the season in tenth, two games back of eighth-place Collingwood. Eventually it all comes back around.
The seventh-place team has completed the finals-bound journey 70 per cent of the time, with 14 of 20 teams staying in the top eight; two moving into the top four but none into the top two. Fortunately for the Eagles, eight-win teams are eight for eight to make the eight.
Finally, eighth-place teams may only have made the top four twice, and both of those times back before my 16-year-old twins were born, but said clubs have a 60 per cent track record of staying in finals. However, each of the last four seasons have seen the eighth-place team following the byes fall out of finals: the 2020 Giants (fell to tenth), 2019 Dockers (fell to 13th), 2018 Kangaroos (slipped to ninth), and 2017 Saints (dropped to 11th).
Greater Western Sydney, Essendon, Fremantle
As much as we like to claim that finalists are set as early as May, there have been some long-range climbs from outside the top eight.
Ninth-place clubs? Eight out of 20 were able to make the eight. Incredibly, four of them made it up to the top four by Round 23, including the last two full-season examples, which were the 2018 Hawks (went 7-2 and moved from ninth to fourth) and the 2019 Tigers (went 9-0 to go from ninth to third). The Giants don’t have to go 9-0, but at 6-6-1, they probably need at least six wins to play in September.
Tenth-place clubs? Believe it or not, seven of 20 made the leap at least two spots into the top eight, including three in a row – 2019 Bombers (won six of nine to move up to eighth place), 2018 Giants (also won six of nine to get to seventh at 13-8-1), and the 2017 Swans (who continued their long surge from an 0-6 start by winning eight of their last nine to end at 14-8 and finish sixth).
If Essendon wins six more in 2021, they’ll finish 12-10, which might not be enough. Seven would be safer.
Eleventh-place clubs? Even from that far back, they still have a 20 per cent chance of reaching the finals. Four of the 20 teams in the 21st century have managed to move upwards into the final eight: 6-7 Hawthorn in 2000, 5-8 West Coast in 2004, 6-7 North Melbourne in 2015, and 6-7 Essendon in 2017. Of course, all four teams had to win six or more to make it: Essendon went 7-2, and the Eagles 8-1. At 6-7 with a fairly low percentage, the Dockers really would need seven wins to have a reasonable chance.
So, you’re saying there’s a chance?
If your favourite team is behind Fremantle right now, there’s good news, bad news and informative news. The good news is that there are teams that have come from farther back than 11th with nine games to go to make finals.
The bad news is that over the last 20 years, we can list them on one hand.
The informative news would be that if you’re serious about this, your team had better be floating at or above 90 per cent if you expect them to have a realistic shot.
Here are the four teams.
• 2001: Adelaide was, by percentage, in a four-way tie for ninth, which means they were 12th officially. They went from 6-7 to 12-10, merely a 6-3 run, to make finals in eighth place. Their percentage was 91.3 after 13 games; they ended at 102.9.
• 2012: Similarly, Fremantle was in a five-way tie for ninth at 6-7 with a 90.8 percentage to sit in 13th place. They went 8-1 to end the season at 14-8 and finish in seventh place with a percentage of 115.7.
• 2019: Variations on a theme. The Bulldogs were among four teams tied at 5-8, holding an 89.9 percentage and sitting in 15th. They ran off seven of the last nine to end the season at 12-10 in seventh.
• 2014: The most famous of all the late-season comebacks must be the Tigers. After Round 14, they were an abysmal 3-10, in 16th place (behind a string of teams tied at 4-9). They had just lost to eventual minor premier Sydney by three; they then won nine games in a row -including a wholly unexpected upset of the Swans in their 22nd game – to squeeze into the finals in eighth.
The key might be that even at 3-10, Richmond’s percentage was 92.5; they broke even during Round 17 and reached 105.9 at season’s end.
If percentage is key, then of the seven teams at the bottom of the ladder, only Carlton and Collingwood have the requisite percentage to get the job done. But if you lived through Richmond’s seemingly impossible run in 2014, then who knows? Maybe North Melbourne rips off the next nine and 10-11-1 gets into finals this season!
Mike Myers and Dana Carvey have the answer to that statement.