Last season, the six teams that eventually made the finals series (Adelaide, Brisbane, Collingwood, Fremantle, Melbourne, and North) played a total of 22 games against the eight teams that failed to make finals.
Do the math: every team I didn’t name a moment ago.
They went 21-1 combined in those games. Only a Week 4 defeat of the Demons by the Bulldogs kept the record from being unblemished.
This season, it’s been more of the same. Of the 18 games played before the hypothetical Brisbane-Carlton match-up on Tuesday, if COVID allows it, fully two thirds of them have been between the haves and the have-nots.
And not surprisingly, last year’s finalists are 12-0 so far against the also-rans.
What might surprise is that there have only been four games among the eight also-rans from last season (the Giants and Tigers lead that mini-table at 1-0 each; Geelong, St Kilda and the Eagles are 0-1) and just two so far among finalists (Adelaide is 2-0 versus Brisbane and the Kangaroos).
The upshot of this semi-travesty has been a lot of uninteresting footy, at least if you’re concerned with which team might win the contest.
The average winning margin has been a fraction under 24 points per game. Even that number is deceptively low when you factor in several games where the leader eased up in the fourth, as with Sunday’s mercy quarter following the 54-1 lead the Kangas held on the Giants.
The game ended 54-27, which almost sounds competitive. It wasn’t.
Hidden in that statistic are the marked improvements of teams like Geelong and Richmond, both significantly better than when last they took the field in 2021.
Geelong has played three top seven teams from last season (Carlton being the non-finalist of the three) but looked strong in each game, while Richmond won their one easy game versus the Saints in the season opener, and stayed with Melbourne and Fremantle for three quarters each before fading in the fourth.
It also masks our lack of knowledge about both Brisbane and the Western Bulldogs so far, or at least masks the fact that COVID has hidden their 2022 performance level from us so far.
But no one wants to see uncompetitive games all season long. We really want to see teams that sit on more equal footing square off, rather than going 17 of 18 on our winner picks over the first three weeks.
Well, that changes this week.
Pandemic willing, we are scheduled to see two tremendous finals-preview games in Round 4.
All dates and games are subject to change even before this article hits your screen, if past predicts the future.
But as of this instant, the Demons are scheduled to travel down to SA to take on the in-form club of the competition, the Adelaide Crows – the only team that have played and beaten 2021 finalists this season (two of them, to boot).
Melbourne have been powerful in their three outings as well, with Daisy Pearce back in fine form and adding the uber-talented Tayla Harris to an already fully stocked pantry.
But it’s hard to know what their top gear is until they meet top competition.
Consider the Roos, for example. Sure, they can overwhelm a bottom team like the Giants 54-1 (and coast home from there), but they also were clearly outplayed by the Crows in their Round 2 loss against the only finalist they’ve met so far.
North get something of a test this weekend when they play Carlton at Ikon Park – as big a test as they can have playing a non-finalist.
But the other capital-B Big game this weekend will pit the road-warrior Fremantle club against Collingwood, in a game that will tell us more about both teams than we’ve yet learnt watching them each dominate non-finalists for three weeks.
For that matter, the other end of the ladder has some intriguing clashes, too.
Richmond will be good but probably not an overwhelming test of a Gold Coast team coming back from quarantine. Their last quarter of play was extremely impressive against a weak West Coast team.
And even those Eagles will have a fascinating game on tap against the Saints, who have also been borderline disappointing thus far in season 2022.
If Brisbane are able to play against Geelong, and if they aren’t quite back to championship form just yet, then Geelong will give them all they can handle.
Same with the Bulldogs (not quite as good as Brisbane) and GWS (not quite as good as Geelong).
And we’ve already discussed the Carlton-North match-up briefly. If indeed North aren’t quite what they’ve been the past few seasons, Carlton will be ready to knock the round number off that 12-0 start for the finalists in Rounds 1-3.
So with that preface, here are the numbers produced by our ELO-Following Football ratings system for Week 4 for the seven games as currently scheduled by the AFL.
And you’ll get no criticism from me on the tectonic shifts of games we’ve seen: after all, I was the one who said in my first article of the year that any season that makes it to completion is a success during the pandemic, however it has to be accomplished.
Richmond versus Gold Coast at Metricon
The ELO-FF numbers give the Tigers a two-goal edge in this one, and personally I’d buy lots of stock in that number because it’s going to go up big time.
Richmond are the real deal this season, and we’re still waiting for the prop bet to come out where you can pick whether the women’s team from Punt Road will have a better finishing position than the men’s does.
It was inconceivable before this season, but not such a wild fantasy now. Expect a three- or four-goal victory for the Tigers here against a rusty crew from Queensland.
Melbourne versus Adelaide at Norwood Oval
This is titanic matchup number one this weekend.
The Demons have some incredible players, but Adelaide have been the best team this month, and the ELO-FF numbers give the Crows a nine-point advantage in this game at home.
We don’t want to push that point spread either direction: one and a half goals in Adelaide’s favour feels about right to us, too.
West Coast versus St Kilda at Barker Beach Oval
I heard an interview with Kara Antonio after Fremantle’s third victory in three starts on Saturday where she said something like ‘winning takes the pain out of all the hardship being on the road for an unpredictable but ever-growing number of weeks’.
Well, imagine what it feels like to be an Eagle right now, knowing your hotel stay is going to continue indefinitely with the tightening of WA borders, knowing the difficulties that those rules continue to cause you personally being away from home for perhaps the entire season, and having a winless campaign piling all the more burden on your back as well.
The ELO-FF numbers give St Kilda a two-goal victory here, but here’s my take: if the Saints go up by a few goals in the second half, it would be very easy to forgive those handful of Eagles players who don’t run quite as fast or tackle quite as hard in the fourth quarter of another likely loss.
I haven’t seen the actual PlayUp point spreads yet, but taking the high side of the number might be an intelligent play, just because if the Eagles don’t win, the final score could get out of hand.
Take St Kilda to win and cover a two-goal spread.
Geelong versus Brisbane at Maroochydore
The ELO-FF number on this game thinks of Brisbane as the team they were three weeks ago, losing to Adelaide in the grand final rematch, and gives them a four-goal edge on the Cats here.
The problem with that (and it may be solved before you read this, if they do play Carlton on Tuesday evening) is that rust is a difficult foe.
Remember the issues we’ve seen with a few of the men’s teams with top seeds who get the week off after Round 23, then win a qualifying final and get another week off immediately waiting for the prelim opponent?
Those teams are right at 50-50 since the bye week was inserted, whereas they’d been 9-1 the previous five seasons after their (one and only) bye.
Too much time off dulls your timing, and if Brisbane can’t play on Tuesday (or if they end up with lots of pandemic subs), then we can guarantee the Cats will at least cover that spread.
We’re betting that way regardless: Brisbane to win, but Geelong to cover.
North Melbourne versus Carlton at Ikon Park
We’ve grown to think of Ikon as the birthplace of the AFLW, seeing as the first ever game was played there (and they had to padlock the gates after 24,000 showed up when the AFL wasn’t sure anyone would).
But it really is an ideal venue for the women’s game currently – watching the Geelong home games with zero fans on the far side only reminds the viewer that it isn’t yet the men’s game in terms of attendance (and may never be – discuss among yourselves).
Ikon is that nice in-between size that can handle five figures comfortably without losing the usefulness of your home crowd cheering you on in a tight game.
And make no mistake: Carlton can and should keep this one close. The ELO-FF point spread is merely one point in favour of the Kangaroos, and we’re not sure that’s the right choice.
Ideally, we’d like to wait until we know whether they got/had to play on Tuesday to know which way to pick this game – if they’ve got a five-day turnaround, we’re taking North to win over a tired bunch of Blues.
If they got the week off, we’ll take Carlton to squeak it out. A bit wishy-washy? Perhaps. At least you’ll have our definitive decision by Wednesday morning.
Fremantle versus Collingwood at Victoria Park
Titanic matchup number two pits two 3-0 teams against a finalist for the first time this season.
Both clubs had tougher than anticipated outings last weekend – the Pies could never put Geelong away, winning by only 11 in the end, while Richmond tired in the fourth and allowed the Dockers to pull away with six straight goals in the last quarter-plus for a 30-point win.
Neither club have had quite the dominant display that Saturday’s headline opponents have shown, but if we were to put our money where our rating system is, then that money would go on Fremantle by seven.
Frankly, we make it policy not to bet again Kiara Bowers or the Antonios unless absolutely necessary, and it seems like in their case, the road warrior thing is more of a benefit than a curse so far.
We’ll take Fremantle to exceed that seven-point margin in the end and give Collingwood their first defeat in 2022.
Western Bulldogs versus GWS Giants at Henson Park
It looks strange to see one team with a record of 1-2 and the other having only played one game, but that’s pandemic footy for you.
The numbers are actually pushing for a Giants victory (ELO-FF predicts a six-point Giants win), but it’s hard to bring ourselves to believing that just yet – especially having watched the Giants put so little resistance up against North on Sunday, and go scoreless the final three quarters against Fremantle the week before.
Until the Giants prove they can beat someone besides the Suns, we’re taking the Bulldogs to win this, even if they’re still not at full strength just yet.
Last week: 5-0 (not counting the Brisbane-Carlton game. We took Carlton to win outright).
Overall: 17-1 (still smarting over Gold Coast’s last quarter against the Eagles in Week 2).
Against the spread: 11-6 (no line wagers on the two Frankensteined games – the ones reassembled for the healthy teams with unhealthy, scratched opponents in Week 2 and Week 3).
Finalists versus non-finalists: 33-1 since the start of 2021.