AFL qualifying final - Geelong vs. Richmond (Friday 7:50pm AEST)
One side that is accustomed to finals football, Geelong, and a side unfamiliar to September success, Richmond, will lock horns at the MCG in a battle to see who hosts a preliminary final at the MCG in two weeks' time. Despite the gulf in finals experience, there's not much in the betting with the Cats $1.75 favourites over the Tigers ($2.15).
1980 is a glorious but distant memory for Richmond fans over the age of 50. Considering the Tigers have only won three finals since their last premiership, it's not hard to understand why. 2001 was the last time Richmond tasted success in September, and the previous time was back in 1995. Since Richmond's last finals victory, Geelong has played in 28 finals and won 16 of them, including three premierships in 2007, 2009 and 2011.
Even though the Tigers have plenty of mental demons to overcome in winning their first final in 16 years, it is the best season they've experienced since 2001. They finished in the top four, have already re-signed Dustin Martin - the $1.10 Brownlow Medal favourite - for another seven years, and come into this qualifying final with six wins in their past seven clashes.
However, that one loss was against Geelong in Round 21, and it's another mental hurdle that Richmond have to overcome. It was the 13th straight loss the Tigers have suffered against the Cats, and 20 out of 21 going back to Round 9, 2001. At least Richmond won't have to travel to Simonds Stadium on this occasion. At the MCG this season, the Tigers have won nine of their 11 contests, while the Cats were 3-2 at the home of football, as opposed to 6-1 at Simonds Stadium.
When these sides met only four weeks ago, Geelong were able to eke out a 14-point victory despite the absence of captain Joel Selwood to injury and full forward Tom Hawkins to suspension. Patrick Dangerfield was at his brilliant best with 30 disposals, Cam Guthrie arguably played his best match for the Cats, and Harry Taylor's four-goal haul was pivotal in deciding the result, and nullifying the influence of this year's All-Australian captain, full back Alex Rance.
Despite Rance, Dustin Martin (21 disposals) and Jack Riewoldt (one goal, three behinds) having down days, the Tigers can take heart that they were still a winning chance with 10 minutes to go against a side that has owned them for almost two decades.
The betting indicates this should be a tight tussle, and both teams probably believe they can better their Round 21 effort with players either returning from injury or suspension, or stars who will hopefully improve on what they produced a month ago.
Five of Geelong's past nine wins have been by under 15 points, and there was also the draw in Round 15 against GWS. Aside from two defeats this season, Richmond's other five losses were by less than 15 points, and in the past four encounters between these teams, the Cats' biggest winning margin was 14 points. It promises to be a fascinating spectacle in front of over 90,000 fans.
Best of the rest (Placed in Time Order)
NRL qualifying final - Melbourne vs. Parramatta (Saturday 4:10pm AEST)
In 2008, ladder leaders Melbourne entered the finals as $1.70 premiership favourites after winning eight of their last 10 home-and-away season matches and appeared to have the measure of all sides as they faced the eighth-placed Warriors at Olympic Park in the first week. By game's end, the Storm had fallen 18-15, and even though they eventually reached the grand final, they were smashed 40-0 by Manly with Cameron Smith watching from the sidelines due to suspension.
Nine years later, the Storm are $1.85 favourites for the premiership before the commencement of the finals; the shortest price a team has been since Melbourne in 2008. The Storm will be hoping that lightning doesn't strike twice, as they are $1.18 favourites to defeat Parramatta ($5) at AAMI Park.
Despite securing the minor premiership with two rounds of the home-and-away season left, Melbourne did not rest on their laurels with dominant performances against Souths (64-6) and Canberra (32-6) part of their seven-match winning streak. The Storm appear to have no weaknesses with their attack vastly superior to last season, headlined by Suliasi Vunivalu, who is the leading tryscorer in 2017 with 23 in total, and Josh Addo-Carr, an off-season acquisition who has scored 19 tries. In last year's home-and-away season, Melbourne scored 563 points; this year, they have 633. In defence, the Storm have conceded 336 points; Cronulla are the next best with 407 allowed.
Parramatta have an unenviable assignment in front of them, but their form has been terrific since a 5-6 start to their 2017 campaign. Since Round 12, the Eels have won 11 of 13 encounters, resulting in their first finals appearance since finishing eighth in 2009. Even though they scraped into the finals, Jarryd Hayne inspired the Eels to a grand final spot, before falling to the Storm.
If there's cause for concern over Parramatta's second half of the season, three of their 11 wins were against finalists, and the 22-6 win over Melbourne at AAMI Park in Round 18 was against a Storm side minus stars like Smith, Slater and Cronk due to Origin duty. However, the Eels thrashed Brisbane twice in four weeks at ANZ Stadium (28-14 in Round 21) and Suncorp Stadium (52-34 in Round 25) with the latter effort highlighted by Semi Radradra's four-try performance. Considering that some pundits rate the Broncos as the Storm's biggest premiership rival, those wins must hold Parramatta in good stead.
Parramatta have also won their past two fixtures at AAMI Park, but it is worth noting that Melbourne were severely depleted due to Origin both times. The two wins in Melbourne are the only victories that the Eels have enjoyed against the Storm since 2013. Melbourne are 9-2 at home this season, and despite Parramatta's late season surge, it is difficult to see them troubling a Storm outfit who are in tremendous form and appear flawless.
AFL elimination final - Sydney vs. Essendon (Saturday 4:20pm AEST)
There have been many great escapes in the 2017 home-and-away season, but perhaps there were none bigger than Sydney's improbable victory in Round 14 against Essendon. The game's ending made an appearance on Bad Beats, a weekly staple of SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt, so it had to be remarkable.
The Swans' one-point triumph against the Bombers was one of their 11 wins in 12 matches in the second half of the season, and they are $1.20 favourites to continue their astounding turnaround and reach the semifinals over the Bombers ($4.80) at the SCG.
After a disastrous 0-6 start to the 2017 season, which resulted in Sydney drifting to $101 for the premiership, the Swans have recovered amazingly to win 14 of their past 16 games. Only Hawthorn could trouble last year's grand finalists from Round 7, defeating them at the SCG in Round 10 and the MCG in Round 19.
Sydney's shocking start cost them a top four berth, but they enter the finals as the $4.50 second favourite for the flag due to their strong form post Round 6. To illustrate their form reversal, they managed to account for Richmond, GWS, Geelong and Adelaide - who all made the top four - from Round 13 to 22; and all of those wins were away from the SCG.
The Swans enjoyed a comfortable 81-point victory over Carlton at the SCG in the final round, but the sight of Lance Franklin dominating would have sent shivers through the coaching staffs of the seven other finalists. 'Buddy' kicked 10 goals; two more than the Blues could manage. If Josh Kennedy, Dan Hannebery, Luke Parker and Sydney's other midfielders can dominate the clearances, it could be a long night for Essendon's defence in their attempts to curtail Franklin.
Hopefully the pre-finals bye has not resulted in recurring nightmares for the Bombers as they return to the SCG after blowing their 19-point final quarter lead in Round 14. While Franklin returned to his dominant best in the last month of the home-and-away season, Essendon also has a dominant key forward in Joe Daniher, who kicked a career-high 62 goals in 2017. If the Bombers can get enough supply into their forward line, they could trouble a Sydney defence which isn't the tallest in the competition.
After battling through the ASADA scandal in recent years, Essendon could attack this contest in a nothing-to-lose mentality, even though a defeat would end their season. At times this year, the Bombers have been exhilarating, as evident by dominant wins at Etihad Stadium against West Coast and Port Adelaide. However, they also fell to Carlton and Brisbane as well. They also performed poorly against this season's finalists, winning two of seven encounters.
Essendon let victory slip through their fingers in Round 14, but the Swans are undoubtedly the form team of the AFL after their 0-6 start, and should stretch their winning run at the SCG to seven matches.
NRL elimination final - Cronulla vs North Queensland (Sunday 4:10pm AEST)
Two sides who enter the finals not in the best of form will battle to continue their September campaign for another week when reigning premiers Cronulla ($1.33 favourites) lock horns with North Queensland ($3.40) at Allianz Stadium.
Following a 9-3 start to this season, the Sharks have failed to recapture that form during, and after, the Origin period. The Sharks have gone 6-6 since Round 14, and have only recorded back-to-back wins on one occasion. James Maloney was missing for a period of time due to injury, which has affected continuity.
Entering their game against Newcastle last Sunday at McDonald Jones Stadium, Cronulla knew that they would finish in fifth position on the ladder. Instead of resting a plethora of players, the Sharks were at full strength and registered a 26-18 victory over the Knights, with captain Paul Gallen running for 300 metres in a man-of-the-match performance. Considering the Sharks had lost three of their previous four ahead of the clash against Newcastle, it was beneficial for Cronulla to gain some confidence before a cut-throat final.
Despite losing future immortal Johnathan Thurston to a season-ending shoulder injury in Game 2 of Origin, North Queensland looked as though they were still finals bound after winning six games out of seven between Rounds 13-20. A 22-16 loss to the Sydney Roosters in Round 21 at Allianz Stadium commenced a downward spiral which saw the Cowboys only claim one victory in their last six home-and-away season fixtures.
Unlike the Sharks, North Queensland were not assured of a finals berth in the last round, and they had to endure a three-day wait after falling 20-10 to Brisbane in Townsville last Thursday night. The Cowboys should probably invite a few of the Canterbury players to their end-of-season party after the Bulldogs upset St George Illawarra 26-20, allowing North Queensland to finish eighth at the Dragons' expense.
Both teams have struggled in the last six weeks, but Cronulla have been victorious in their last four clashes against North Queensland, including last year's 32-20 preliminary final triumph at Allianz Stadium. Counting their preliminary final success last season, the Sharks have won their past five games at Allianz Stadium dating back to 2014; three of those against the permanent resident, the Sydney Roosters.
While Cronulla have enjoyed travelling to Allianz Stadium, the same cannot be said for North Queensland. The Cowboys have failed to win at the venue in their last seven attempts going back to 2011, and are 2-10 since 2006. North Queensland were fortunate to reach the finals, and Cronulla should be good enough to continue their pursuit of consecutive premierships for one more week.
NFL Week 1 - Detroit Lions vs. Arizona Cardinals (Monday 3am AEST)
One of the most intriguing games in the opening week of the 2017 season will take place in the Motor City of America when the Detroit Lions ($2.10) and Arizona Cardinals ($1.75 favourites) lock horns at Ford Field.
With three weeks to go in the regular season last year, the Lions had a 9-4 record and were set to fight the Green Bay Packers for the NFC North division title. Unfortunately, quarterback Matthew Stafford damaged the middle finger on his throwing hand in their Week 14 victory at home to the Chicago Bears, and the Lions lost their last three regular season games to fall to 9-7. In the wild card round, the Seattle Seahawks eliminated the Lions 26-6 at home, ending a promising season.
Even though Detroit fans had to endure another disappointing finish to a season that was looking strong in December, there is cause for optimism. Only two weeks ago, Stafford signed a five-year contract extension, meaning he is the undisputed leader of the Lions' offence. If running back Ameer Abdullah can stay off the injury list, he and Theo Riddick provide Detroit with two attacking weapons out of the backfield to complement wide receiver Golden Tate and tight end Eric Ebron; one of the best catchers at his position.
2016 must have felt like a wasted year for the Arizona Cardinals. After losing to the Carolina Panthers in the previous season's NFC Championship game, the Cardinals started last season sluggishly with one victory in four games. While the Seattle Seahawks easily won the NFC West division crown, Arizona could only manage seven wins and a tie; a far cry from their 13-3 record in 2015.
Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer was outstanding in 2015 with 35 touchdown passes and only 11 interceptions. Last year, he threw 26 touchdown passes and was intercepted on 14 occasions. Palmer must play better this season if Arizona wish to return to the playoffs, but with a shaky offensive line that didn't provide the best protection last season, there's no guarantee that Palmer will return to previous glory. The Cardinals will rely on running back David Johnson to continue his tremendous play from his first two seasons, hope that their defence - which was still strong in 2016 - can rescue their offence if they struggle, and pray that wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald maintains his terrific output in season number 14.
In a game where both teams enter with question marks, Detroit appears to be slightly more stable than Arizona. The Lions were tough to beat at Ford Field last season, winning six of their eight home games, while Arizona were poor on the road with three wins in eight attempts. All of the victories were against teams in the Pacific Time Zone of America (San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles), so until the Cardinals prove they can win outside of their comfort zone, the Lions look value as home underdogs.
NFL Week 1 - Tennessee Titans vs Oakland Raiders (Monday 3am AEST)
Two sides who are expected to continue their improvement from last season, and possibly contend for the AFC Championship, will do battle in the opening week of the 2017 season when the Tennessee Titans ($1.70 favourites) host the Oakland Raiders ($2.15) at Nissan Stadium in Nashville.
After many years of being in the playoff wilderness and operating under the enormous shadow of the Indianapolis Colts and more recently, the Houston Texans, in the AFC South division, the Titans in 2016 had enough of being a laughing stock and were in the postseason hunt with an 8-6 record at the end of Week 15. The following week away to the Jacksonville Jaguars, quarterback Marcus Mariota suffered a fractured right fibula, and Tennessee missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record.
During the Titans' playoff push, Mariota showed why he was the No.2 overall pick in the 2015 Draft. In his rookie season, Mariota threw 19 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. Last year, he threw 26 touchdown passes and was intercepted nine times despite starting three more games than his first year. If Mariota is able to cast aside the mental demons from his injury, there's no reason he can't continue the progression he made from his rookie campaign. Running backs Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray, who was rejuvenated last season after a poor 2015 with the Philadelphia Eagles, can also shoulder the load as Mariota finds his feet.
While the Titans were still battling for a postseason berth before Mariota's injury last year, the Oakland Raiders were already assured of a playoff spot and a potential first-round bye until quarterback Derek Carr broke his right fibula in a Week 16 win at home to the Indianapolis Colts. The Raiders fell to the Denver Broncos away from home in the last week, lost the AFC West division title to the Kansas City Chiefs as a result, and then fell 27-14 on the road to the Houston Texans in the wild card round behind third-string quarterback Connor Cook. It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Raiders who enjoyed their best season (12-4) in 14 years dating back to their Super Bowl XXXVII loss against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Carr will return to the gridiron with a chip on his shoulder after Oakland's quick exit from last season's playoffs, and he still has plenty of offensive weapons at his disposal even though running back Latavius Murray departed to the Minnesota Vikings. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are one of the best wide receiver tandems in the NFL, while former Seattle Seahawk, Marshawn Lynch, has come out of retirement to partner with DeAndre Washington at the running back position. On the other side of the ball, defensive end Khalil Mack has quickly established himself as a player who gives coaches and offensive co-ordinators nightmares, as evident by his 26 sacks in the last two seasons.
These teams aren't division rivals, so they don't clash every season, but they did meet in Nashville last year with Oakland prevailing 17-10 in a Week 3 encounter. It was one of three losses the Titans suffered at home in 2016, but for the Raiders, it was part of their 6-3 record away from Oakland last season, and two of the defeats occurred when Carr was watching the game, not playing in it. The Raiders could be the biggest threat to New England winning consecutive AFC champions, and a road victory in the opening week against a potential playoff opponent would be a big statement.