Finalists, premiers, award winners: ESPN's NRL crystal ball

There are four rounds remaining in the 2018 NRL season, with a fiercely-fought battle underway to secure the best positions in a tightly grouped top eight. With a month to go, it's time to look into the crystal ball and assess the biggest remaining questions ahead of the finals.

The top eight

Sydney Roosters
Minor Premiers - 38 points

Points: 30
For/against: 159
Run home: Rabbitohs, Raiders, Broncos, Eels

The Roosters are currently in a red-hot run of form, their outside backs feeding off the good momentum from their forwards. The combination of Jake Friend, Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco around the middle of the ruck improves every week, and Latrell Mitchell has become the most destructive centre in the game. If they beat the Rabbitohs this week, they should cruise home over the last three weeks, improving their for-and-against enough to take first place.

Melbourne Storm
Second - 38 points

Points: 30
For/against: 164
Run home: Sharks, Eels, Titans, Panthers
The Storm should bounce back to win all four of their remaining games after a slight stumble last week against the Rabbitohs. The Sharks and Panthers will provide tough opposition, but both games will be in Melbourne and news of Billy Slater's pending retirement should fire up both the players and fans. Everyone will be hoping to send Slater out with another premiership.

South Sydney Rabbitohs
Third - 38 points

Points: 32
For/against: 140
Run home: Roosters, Broncos, Raiders, Tigers
I'm tipping the Roosters will beat the Rabbitohs this weekend in a very tight contest, but the Rabbitohs will be too strong for the remaining three teams they face this season. Anthony Seibold has the Bunnies playing a very attractive and effective brand of football. With inspirational leader Greg Inglis set to return from a thumb injury, the Rabbitohs will charge into the finals.

St George Illawarra Dragons
Fourth - 34 points

For/against: 101
Run home: Eels, Tigers, Bulldogs, Knights
The Dragons have shown disturbing signs of late, not only losing four of their last five games, but playing an ineffective lateral style of play in doing so. The no-nonsense, up-the-middle play that saw them start 2018 so well has gone missing and fans are starting to sense another disappointing end to the season. They have the kindest of runs home, but they could still lose one or more of these if they don't turn things around.

Penrith Panthers
Fifth - 34 points

Points: 28
For/against: 77
Run home: Titans, Knights, Warriors, Storm
Who knows how the Panthers are going to react to all the turmoil surrounding the sacking of coach Anthony Griffin this week. Can interim coach Cameron Ciraldo adequately communicate Phil Gould's game plan to the players? Will halfback Nathan Cleary be distracted by all the talk of his father being the next coach at the club? They have two easier opponents to sort themselves out before facing the Warriors and Storm in a real test of their mental state.

Cronulla Sutherland Sharks
Sixth - 32 points

For/against: 43
Run home: Storm, Cowboys, Knights, Bulldogs
The Sharks have been another team to disappoint of late, losing their last two matches to the Broncos and Sea Eagles. They will struggle to beat the Storm this weekend, but they should be too good for their remaining three opponents. They'll need big wins in those games to rebuild their confidence heading into the finals.

New Zealand Warriors
Seventh - 32 points

For/against: -14
Run home: Knights, Bulldogs, Panthers, Raiders
The Warriors are another team that started the season well, but have slumped to some disappointing efforts in the second half of the year. They beat the Dragons last week, but really should have done it more convincingly, given the form of their opposition. They should win three of their last four games, with the Panthers the stumbling block. The unpredictable Warriors could then cause havoc in the finals.

Brisbane Broncos
Eighth - 30 points

For/against: -6
Run home: Cowboys, Rabbitohs, Roosters, Sea Eagles
After the way the Broncos lost to the Bulldogs last week, it is hard to see them beating either the Rabbitohs or Roosters, the way those two teams are travelling. The Broncos compounded that loss to the Dogs in going down to the Cowboys in a thriller on Thursday night, and could have similar troubles beating Manly if the Sea Eagles continue their run of firing up against the top sides.

To miss out

Wests Tigers
Ninth - 26 points

For/against: -36
Run home: Raiders, Dragons, Sea Eagles, Rabbitohs

The only team still in with a chance at making the finals, the Tigers will go painfully close. In recent weeks they have kept their hopes alive with good wins over the Dragons and Rabbitohs, who they face again in the run home. They also let two vital points slip against the Bulldogs. They won't catch the Bunnies napping again and will have a tough time beating both the Dragons and Sea Eagles.  

2018 NRL Premiers

South Sydney Rabbitohs - The Rabbitohs have been so impressive this year under the coaching of Anthony Seibold. Their backline moves have been mesmerising for fans to watch, and a complete nightmare for opposition teams to defend. We have seen in recent weeks that they can be beaten if the forwards are nullified, but Sam Burgess led a lot of these guys to the big dance in 2014 and he'll be very keen to show them the way once again. Greg Inglis returns from injury freshened up and ready to fire. Their main threats will obviously be the Roosters and Storm, but they have shown they are capable of beating both.

Clive Churchill Medal

Damien Cook has been a revelation this season for the Rabbitohs and New South Wales. He should go on to earn the Kangaroos No.9 jersey. If the Rabbitohs do win the premiership, it will be on the back of his sharpness around the ruck and lightning-quick runs from dummy-half.

Dally M Medal

James Maloney was leading the count when the voting went behind closed doors in May. If the post-Anthony Griffin Panthers can bounce back to form over the closing rounds, Maloney could score enough votes to sneak home. Damien Cook, Cameron Smith, Latrell Mitchell and Kalyn Ponga could all be in the running on Dally M night.

Wooden Spoon

Parramatta Eels
Sixteenth - 14 points

For/against: -124
Run home: Dragons, Storm, Cowboys, Roosters
On season-long form, the Eels should struggle to beat any of the four teams they come up against in the closing rounds. But the Eels are still capable of springing some surprises and they could conceivably win two of these.

North Queensland Cowboys
Fifteenth - 16 points

: 12
For/against: -106
Run home: Broncos, Sharks, Eels, Titans
The Cowboys are well and truly in farewell mode for club champion Johnathan Thurston. It certainly helped lift their performance against the Broncos on Thursday night, and could see them rally similarly against the Sharks, Eels and Titans.

Gold Coast Titans
Fourteenth - 16 points

For/against: -111
Run home: Panthers, Sea Eagles, Storm, Cowboys

The Titans have a tough run home, finishing with the final farewell game for Johnathan Thurston. Their best chance for a win will be against the Sea Eagles, but they could also catch Penrith in turmoil after losing their coach.

Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs
Thirteenth - 16 points

Points: 14
For/against: -61
Run home: Sea Eagles, Warriors, Dragons, Sharks

The Bulldogs have shown a lift in form of late, upsetting both the Tigers and Broncos. The three finals-bound teams they face before the season ends won't be as complacent.

Manly Warringah Sea Eagles
Twelfth - 18 points

For/against: -92
Run home: Bulldogs, Titans, Tigers, Broncos
The Sea Eagles are looking to finish their miserable season on a positive note. They have enough quality players in the side to win three of these final four, but their mental application has let them down of late, particularly in losses to the Raiders and Panthers.