Round 20 is here and we now enter the final month of the season.
All aspects of the top eight are still up for grabs and this weekend’s results could flip the ladder on its head.
See our tips for the weekend below:
St Kilda v Carlton
Friday - Marvel Stadium
The Saints and the Blues will have luxuriated in the stability of six days at home ahead of an all-Victorian fixture, but their meeting on Friday night can’t promise the same character.
Despite Port Adelaide having punctured their finals hopes a round earlier, the Saints pushed West Coast to the line on Saturday afternoon, in a free-flowing contest in Perth.
Over the first hour of the game the ‘Weagles Web’ pinned Brett Ratten’s team back in their own half, pushing their forwards up the ground and creating opportunities when the Saints’ high exits went to ground.
The visitors tinkered over the break, took the aerial game away and chained by hand before launching to Max King, who booted a career-high six goals to go with eight contested marks.
St Kilda were still vulnerable going the other way, and Dom Sheed twice made the most of the space the Eagles were afforded, sealing an eight point win.
It is King who looms largest over Friday night. It mattered not whether he had the sit, only that the ball came in fast and he could run at it.
North Melbourne, who have propped up the ladder for the entire season, scythed through Carlton earlier in the day.
The Roos relentlessly executed by foot through the centre of the ground against an opposition notorious for their disinterest in defensive transitions.
It saw the Blues’ backmen isolated on key forward Nick Larkey, who took six marks inside 50 and kicked seven goals in the best of his 47 games so far.
Carlton had to cobble together a forward line in the absence of spearhead Harry McKay, so there was little chance they could simply run up a higher score in lieu of locking in on defence.
The Saints’ structure has similarly evaporated on occasion this season, but they have put it together more often, and their key pillar will be in place when they do go forward.
Don’t rule out a statement game from David Teague and the Blues however, particularly if they can regain McKay and others.
Tip: St Kilda by 20 points.
Western Bulldogs v Adelaide
Saturday - Mars Stadium
The Western Bulldogs are sitting pretty at the top of the ladder after defeating fellow flag contender Melbourne last time out.
The 20-point win saw the Bulldogs dislodge the Demons at the summit with four rounds remaining in the home and away season.
Marcus Bontempelli (31 disposals and two goals) continued his imperious form and was well supported by Jack Macrae (38) and Caleb Daniel (34).
A hamstring injury to Alex Keath somewhat soured the victory with the key defender expected to be sidelined for up to a month.
Ed Richards is also unavailable after entering the mandatory 12-day concussion protocol.
The ladder-leading Dogs will look to extend their winning streak to three games when they host Adelaide at Mars Stadium in Ballarat on Saturday.
The Crows are coming off a morale-boosting 19-point win over Hawthorn which snapped a run of four straight defeats.
Rory Laird (36 disposals) and Taylor Walker (four goals) starred while young midfielder Harry Schoenberg earned a Rising Star nomination after collecting 24 disposals.
The Bulldogs have won their previous two meetings against Adelaide by an average margin of 45 points.
Luke Beveridge’s side should comfortably dispose of the Crows and maintain their charge towards a top two finish.
Tip: Western Bulldogs by 26 points.
North Melbourne v Geelong
Saturday - Blundstone Arena
Despite sitting 17 places away from each other on the ladder, this game between North Melbourne and Geelong has some genuine intrigue to it.
Since the bye, the bottom of the table Kangaroos have turned a corner, with their form resembling a mid-table outfit after easily handling Carlton last week.
For the Cats, they’d back themselves in just about any clash at this stage of the season such is their form having gone 9-1 over the last 10 weeks.
While Geelong will go in as a heavy bookies’ favourite, the fact that this game is scheduled for Hobart will give North Melbourne fans a glimmer of hope.
At Blundstone Arena this season alone the Roos have beaten Gold Coast, drew with GWS and genuinely challenged both Melbourne and Brisbane.
With the Demons and Lions in the same boat as the Cats ladder-wise, this clash looks like it will head in a similar direction.
The Cats are probably one of the two teams you’d be confident to label a premiership favourite at this stage, and while the Kangaroos should offer a resistance, they won’t be able to get over the top of this Geelong side particularly with Ben Cunnington missing.
Expect the Cats to consolidate their top two place this weekend with decent win.
Tip: Geelong by 27 points.
Gold Coast v Melbourne
Saturday - Metricon Stadium
Just where are Melbourne at right now? After their loss to the high-flying Bulldogs last week, they’ve slipped to third place with a month left of the regular season to play.
Heading into Round 20, both the Dogs and Cats are announcing themselves as the two best sides in the competition and the Dees are badly in need of a good performance to keep pace.
They’ll face off against a Suns side who were well in control early against Brisbane last Saturday before a 78-point turnaround seeing them beaten easily.
The story here is Izak Rankine has been dropped for the clash, with Stuart Dew opting to make a statement at selection.
Melbourne is clear favourites here and really shouldn’t have an issue taking care of a Suns side who would be eyeing the finishing line of season 2021.
But if the Suns can keep it close in the first half, anything is possible.
Tip: Melbourne by 20 points.
Collingwood v West Coast
Saturday - MCG
West Coast strengthened their grip on seventh spot after a hard-fought win over St Kilda.
The eight-point victory at Optus Stadium was crucial as the Eagles are now six points clear of eighth-placed GWS and two games ahead of Essendon, Richmond, Fremantle and the Saints.
It’s been an inconsistent season for Adam Simpson’s side, but it appears they are building momentum ahead of their clash with Collingwood.
Premiership captain Shannon Hurn will become the first Eagle to play 300 games and just the third WA-based player to reach the magical milestone.
The Magpies are coming off a 28-point loss to Port Adelaide which was further compounded by Scott Pendlebury’s season-ending leg injury.
Pendlebury was subbed out at quarter-time with scans confirming a hairline fracture in the Collingwood captain’s lower left leg.
Sitting 16th on the ladder with four games remaining, the Magpies will be out to avoid the wooden spoon with 17th-placed Hawthorn and 18th-placed North Melbourne just two points back.
The Pies and Eagles have played out some thrilling battles in recent times including last year’s elimination final heart-stopper and the epic 2018 Grand Final.
West Coast comfortably won the corresponding fixture in Round 5 and should be too strong the second time around against a young Magpies side.
Tip: West Coast by 24 points.
Essendon v Sydney
Saturday - Gabba
Weird things tend to happen when Sydney plays Essendon.
Whether it’s Courtenay Dempsey playing on after the siren, Dane Rampe climbing a post, Gary Rohan’s mark in the goal square on the buzzer or something else, they tend to play thrillers featuring a few oddities.
Their last four clashes have been decided by a total of 24 points and both teams have won on two occasions.
When they met earlier in the season Sydney won by three points, kicking 11.17 to Essendon’s 12.8.
This game was originally scheduled for Marvel Stadium, which would have given the Bombers a clear advantage, but it will now take place in neutral territory at the Gabba.
And it’s an incredibly important clash too, with the Swans looking to push into the top four and the Bombers attempting to stay in touch with the bottom half of the top eight.
Sydney’s form has been strong, while Essendon has had a few issues in recent weeks.
The Swans, particularly with Lance Franklin cleared to play, should be too strong in this one.
Tip: Sydney by 19 points.
Hawthorn v Brisbane
Sunday - UTAS Stadium
Things looked ominous for Brisbane in the first half against Gold Coast last week, but they managed to mount a staggering 78-point turnaround to win easily and stay in the top four mix.
These are interesting times for Chris Fagan’s side, who are essentially adjusting on the run after key position bookends Marcus Adams out for up to six weeks with a stress fracture in his footy and Eric Hipwood sidelined for the longer term after tearing his ACL.
They come up against a Hawthorn side who once again kept things close against an opponent, but a loss to Adelaide at Marvel Stadium last Saturday night was a sobering reminder of where they are in football’s pecking order and how much work they have to do.
A crucial final month of the season for the Lions begins with a match they really can’t afford to drop, especially as they enter Round 20 still a game away from Port Adelaide in fourth place.
These two sides haven’t played since way back in Round 1 one year, with the game taking place amid the backdrop of the opening days of the pandemic in Australia.
A crucial match coming up for the Lions, they can’t afford to slip up against a Hawks side with one eye firmly of development.
Tips: Brisbane by 33 points.
GWS v Port Adelaide
Sunday - TBC
The Giants continued their rollercoaster season by edging their way back into the top eight with a strong win over Essendon last Sunday.
It came on the back of a disappointing loss to Sydney and three defeats in four matches, so to say they needed that one would be an understatement.
After trailing the Bombers by 16 points at half-time, Leon Cameron’s men put the clamps on in the second half, conceding just one goal and scoring six in the process.
It will be that sort of defensive effort they will need to call on against Port Adelaide, who kicked 14 goals on their way to a 28-point win over Collingwood. As a result, the Power were able to keep their position in fourth which is so vital to their double chance hopes with four fixtures remaining.
This particular matchup has been a thorn in Port’s side in recent years. Prior to last season’s Round 6 win on neutral territory, the Power had lost five on the trot to GWS with three of those coming at the Adelaide Oval.
Ken Hinkley will be desperate to avoid returning to those ways and they will have to do so against a Giants side who will be boosted by the return of Toby Greene.
Tempted to tip GWS in a minor upset, but they’ve simply mixed their form too often this year and the Power appear to be in slightly better nick overall.
Tip: Port Adelaide by 11 points.
Fremantle v Richmond
Sunday - Optus Stadium
The finals hopes of both teams could be on the line when Fremantle hosts Richmond.
Both teams sit on 32 points and entered the round on the cusp of the top eight. Given how tight it is, this shapes as the proverbial eight-point game.
Richmond’s injury list has been heavily spoken about, but Fremantle now has to manage without Nathan Fyfe and Michael Walters, two of their leaders.
The Dockers’ inconsistency over the last few months has made them hard to predict and the home ground advantage also hasn’t mattered in recent encounters with the Tigers.
The Tiges have won their last two against Freo in Perth and their last four overall. Of course, this isn’t the elite Richmond unit we’ve seen in recent years.
They will bring pressure and intensity that Freo will have to handle, but the Tigers are blooding youngsters and missing players across the board.
Big key forwards can worry the smaller Richmond backline. Tom Hawkins and Esava Ratugolea kicked eight between them on the weekend.
Whether Fremantle can take advantage of that situation will be the question. Matt Taberner is still finding his feet after an injury layoff.
This is a hard game to tip and it is a must-win game for both sides. Without Fyfe, it’s hard to know whether Fremantle can be trusted.
Tip: Richmond by 9 points.