Every Wednesday of the 2022 season, ESPN will combine with Champion Data to provide an in-depth analysis on a particular hot topic in the AFL.
Geelong. Melbourne. Sydney. Collingwood. Here we have the four teams best placed to win this year's premiership.
For the Cats and Demons, it's two teams, modern perennial powerhouses, that have been primed for a flag assault for at least 24 months. For the Swans, it's a club filled with young stars that have risen to steer the club back to where it's belonged for much of this century, and for the Magpies it's a team with new-found belief thriving off a refreshed coaching regime continuing to defy the odds.
But one thing they all have in common? The all-important double chance. And with 124 of the 126 premiership teams in history triumphant from the luxury of the top four, a flag to any of the aforementioned teams shouldn't shock.
That doesn't mean everything doesn't need to go right to lift up the cup. It does. So we've broken down the strengths and weaknesses of the top four teams in the finals, and determine whether they have enough flag-winning attributes to go all the way, or if their Achilles' heel looms as too big a flaw.
A premiership for the qualifying finalists - here's why they can; here's why they can't.
Geelong have most areas across the field ticked off and, right now, it almost seems like not making the Grand Final from here would be harder for them to achieve.
Cats fans, this is what should give you confidence: Chris Scott has your team ranked third for both most points for (97.55 per game) and fewest points against (67.64), and they're only team in the competition to rank in the top three for both of these stats. They're also the No. 1 team at scoring once inside 50 and third for conceding a score when the opposition enters their 50, meaning they're efficient in offence and difficult to penetrate the other way, notably moving the ball faster and setting up quicker.
When it comes to their scoring, the Cats are fourth in the league for points scored from the forward half, and No. 4 from the back half, meaning they're able to set up scoring chains from just about anywhere on the ground. A crucial stat come September, Geelong ranks fourth for contested possession differential which means more often than not they're getting the first chance at an offensive thrust and gives them more chance to set up behind the play. It's what has led them to become the No. 1 inside 50 differential team in the league, and second for time in forward half differential. Put simply, the game is always on their terms.
Trying to find negatives in this side that has won 13 consecutive games by an average margin of a whopping 39.3 points almost seems useless, but let's try. In the home-and-away rounds, the Cats played in games with the third least pressure applied of any side, and with more heated contests and an increase in higher-stakes situations, could there be a case of Geelong not being 'finals ready'? That's probably looking too much into it, but the fact is their games have had a pressure factor of 178 which is three points below the competition average. In finals, this number tends to ramp up to 184+ (185 last year and 186 in the 2019 finals series).
And hey, let's not forget the oldest team in the competition hasn't won a flag in 10 years, a trend Chris Scott will need to snap if they're to salute in 2022.
Why can the Dees go back-to-back? Because defence wins premierships. They're a well-oiled machine with excellent defensive shape and seem to be peaking at the right time, so regardless of their obvious attacking weaknesses, they are going to be a difficult team to beat.
It is a basic stat, but it is an important one, and the Dees rank No. 1 for fewest points against in 2022 (67.4) - which doesn't scream premiership-winning score. They're also the second hardest team to score against per inside 50, the third hardest to score against from turnovers, and second hardest to score against from clearances, so even if it feels like the opposition have the upper hand, a back 50 with the likes of linchpins Steven May, Jake Lever, Harrison Petty, tough negator Michael Hibberd and rebounders Jayden Hunt, Christian Salem, Trent Rivers and Jake Bowey is keeping them afloat.
Also working for Simon Goodwin is the contested possession (No. 1) and groundball get (No. 2) differential stats, which isn't too bewildering when your on-ball brigade consists of Max Gawn, Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver.
But while they get their hands to the footy first, their flaws are obvious and have been all season - offense. They need to get this right when it counts or 2022 could quickly turn into a failed campaign.
In the last six weeks of the season, Melbourne have been severely beaten on the outside, ranking 14th for uncontested possession differential - a stat that would vastly improve their forward entries and potentially increase avenues to goal.
The Demons rank 11th in the transition game (moving the ball from back 50 to forward 50), too, so while they'll stop an opposition attack, it's not often they're turning it into scores by taking the ball from one end to the other with effect. Nine of the past 10 premiers have ranked in the top six for this stat.
They're also only the 16th best side at applying pressure of any form this season (only Essendon and North Melbourne ranked lower), something that is seen as paramount when the whips are cracking in September.
It doesn't mean things won't change in the finals, and we know the Dees have the cattle to turn their flaws into a strength in the flick of a switch, but they do need to find a way to go to another level or their route to the final match of the season can become complicated.
Another team peaking at the right time, Sydney enters the 2022 finals series as one of the in-form teams, winning their past five matches by an average margin of 37 points.
We're starting simple here, again, but the Swans are the only team that rivals Geelong when it comes to being able to both score heavily and steadily negate the opposition simultaneously, ranking fourth for both points for (93.95) and against (73.45) this season. They're the only two sides that rank in the top four in both of these areas.
Efficiency has also been one of Sydney's hallmarks in 2022, ranking fourth for inside 50 differential, second for scores per inside 50 and third for points from turnover differential. It makes sense when you have a bag filled with offensive weapons such as Lance Franklin, Isaac Heeney, Will Hayward and the game-changing Tom Papley.
Sydney also holds the No. 1 pressure side mantle this season, clearly playing a style that suits finals footy and if they can bring that to the fore against Melbourne this week, it will go a long way to potentially hosting an SCG prelim.
Their stoppage work, however, looms as their biggest problem. The Swans rank 15th for hitout-to-advantage differential in games this season, and 15th for centre bounce clearance differential. It proves their sturdy defence has held up quite well with the McCartin brothers and Dane Rampe holding the fort, but eventually the dam wall could break.
The Swans rank eighth for points conceded to the opposition from forward half chains, with the last 10 AFL premiers all ranking in the top six in this stats during their flag-winning campaigns.
Sydney has been one of the best stories of the last two years and their rise into the premiership conversation this year has been admirable, and with an average winning margin of 31.1 points on home soil, a home prelim, and therefore a win against the reigning premiers this week, continues to loom pivotal.
Collingwood = clutch— AFL (@AFL) August 21, 2022
How have the Pies had so many insane late goals? pic.twitter.com/8zSnx4VByx
Speaking of one of the best stories... The Magpies are on a fairytale run this season after a miserable 17th-placed finish in 2021. And while everyone has expected their momentum and close-game fortunes to take a stumble, they've continued to defy logic and, somehow, have earned themselves a double chance with a percentage of 104.3 - the lowest for a top four team since 1998.
Collingwood is the fourth hardest team to score against from an inside 50, which is a nod to the work of a rather undersized defence consisting of lock-downers Darcy Moore, Jeremy Howe, Nathan Murphy and Brayden Maynard, and perhaps one to the pressure applied up the field to force opposition teams into making poor entries into their forward 50.
They're the second best pressure side in the competition, and if they're to cause any damage in September, it's a strength that must be maintained for four full quarters or the Pies can be susceptible to crumbling.
But why is their pressure so important? Not only has it resulted in inefficient entries that allow the aforementioned defenders to intercept and be the architects of transition, but Craig McRae's team ranks fifth for points scored as a result of opposition turnovers - it's a key source of their scoring, and frankly it's something that only they can control.
The Pies are also the sixth best team for time in forward half differential across the home-and-away season, something that has allowed them to be better structured behind the ball and deny easy access with an educated set up. It's their inefficiency, however, that means they're not getting bang for buck in the scoring department, ranking 14th for scores per inside 50.
But like the Swans, their contest and stoppage work has, for the most part in 2022, also been dreadful.
The Pies rank 17th for contested possession differential, 18th for groundball get differential, 17th for clearance differential and 14th for disposal differential. How this hasn't really troubled them yet this season is one of life's great mysteries, but they've proven to have a back six capable enough off offsetting these deficiencies.
With the Pies, like they've done all season, you can almost just throw logic, numbers, or basically any form of reasoning out the window. They're a confidence and belief-based team that play a brand suited to September footy. Clutch? Luck? Something else? Whatever it is, it's gotten them to within three wins of a premiership.