afl finals week 1

Pete Roberts from Behind The Footy is sharing some of his great content with us for the 2021 AFL season. Pete spent fifteen years in AFL coaching boxes as an analyst. He now shares those insights with footy fans. Here’s his AFL Finals Week 1 preview.

🍻 Pub bets Watching a game and want an interest? We’ve thrown in the pub bet for that very reason… it might just be a smart way to play based on Pete’s excellent analysis!


What a cracking weekend of finals football. Two games in Adelaide and two games in…(checks notes)…Tasmania! We are used to change these days, so we will crack on with the previews for four incredible matchups.

Can’t think of a more even first week in recent history. You could make a case for every single outsider this weekend, and just as easily go 0-4 rather than 4-0. Will do our best to find the winners, but trust your gut this weekend.

Best Matchup Port Adelaide v Geelong

Best Underdog All of them! Geelong, Essendon probably the main two

Team Under Pressure Western Bulldogs

Player To Watch Jeremy Cameron: Kicked five the last time these teams met on the same ground. In multiple ways too. Port had no answer for him back then. Any different now?

AFL Finals Week 1: Port Adelaide v Geelong

Port Adelaide are the biggest puzzle of the top eight. Fresh off a 17-win season which was at least three wins above pre-season expectations, they have earned a home final in a year where they might be the only team to play on their preferred deck in September.

You can certainly see the “flat track bullies” angle some have been peddling – they played only one of the top eight sides twice (the Bulldogs), and enjoyed 11-games at Adelaide Oval, somewhat of a luxury in the current climate. They’ve been a rung below the other top four sides for most of the year, but with close to their best side on the park now, have they improved enough?

The Cats head into this one off the back of losing the unloseable. A 44-point head start against Melbourne turned into a 4-point loss out of nowhere. Ultimately it didn’t change their finals fortunes all that much – instead of topping the table and playing Brisbane at Adelaide Oval (a team they might be less suited to facing), they tackle Port in front of a small but hostile home crowd.

Team Selection

  • Port Adelaide lose Mitch Georgiades, a huge blow to their structure. Orazio Fantasia returns to offset that change, but clearly he is a different kind of player. As we go through below, however, going small against the Cats might not be a bad idea.

  • Geelong regain Mitch Duncan, one of their most experienced finals players. If he is anywhere near fully fit he becomes the important link man in a game full of contested ball players. Advantage Cats on the team changes front.

As we do with the finals, let’s make a case for both sides

The Case for Port Adelaide

You could argue that Port are the form team of the competition. Six wins in a row, two of them against other finalists, and the others either pretty convincing or at least under a fair degree of pressure.

As the second-best pressure side over the past six weeks, Port are well-placed to put enough heat on Geelong here. If they can do it against a side with the speed and class of the Bulldogs (pressure rating of nearly 190 was good enough), then they can definitely get it done against the Cats, who don’t really blow you away with their leg speed or ball movement, particularly in the back half.

We know teams rarely beat Geelong in the air on offence. Even without Stewart, they defend so well in their back half that key forwards can often have tough days against them.

Geelong have been challenged at ground level in their defensive 50 quite a lot this season – only three weeks ago GWS put up 84 points against the Cats despite taking only five marks inside 50. Last week tt wasn’t Brown, Fritsch and McDonald who scored heavily against them. It was Pickett (3 goals), Oliver (2) and Spargo (2) among others.

Port Adelaide will have to do the same. At least in terms of personnel, they are well placed to get it done.

Robbie Gray now has three games under his belt and is ready to peak. Orazio Fantasia has been managed carefully, perhaps to protect him a little for the finals series. Amon, Boak and Rozee can all hit the scoreboard as well. They are the key the Port’s fortunes.

A fast start at home, a small crowd behind them and a bit of belief early on and they are well and truly in this contest. Perhaps surprised to see them warm favourites, but you couldn’t possibly think they are rank outsiders either.

The Case for Geelong

The Cats have lost the clearance count only five times this entire season. Two of those games were against Melbourne. Last weekend they went -10 in the first half against the Dees and still built a massive lead, so they don’t rely entirely on their stoppage game either. Have they got the best all-round game of any side in the finals? Food for thought.

As the best contested possession side in the competition (they have lost the differential only once since Round 5 when they finally got going), the Cats will live or die by their contest work. Dangerfield is arguably in the kind of form that won him a Brownlow several years ago, while Guthrie, Selwood, Menegola and Parfitt can more than hold their own against Port’s midfield carried largely by Boak and Wines.

The other large edge for the Cats is their marking forwards. They took 18 marks inside 50 against Port last time, with Rohan, Cameron and Hawkins combining for 12 goals between them. The matchups will be intriguing – can the Cats for the Aliir v Cameron matchup again and exploit him running back to goal? Given those three big Geelong forwards can score multiple ways, it gives them a head start in a tight final like this one.

The Verdict

Finals are all about big moments and 50/50 contests. The team that can get on top at clearance and win more than their share of contested possession will win. Sounds simple, but this particular matchup hinges solely on what happens when the ball is in dispute.

As gutsy as the Port win was last week, they only fell over the line against a Bulldogs team travelling terribly. Even considering they are the kind of side that will lift a cog in a home final, they do need to hit the scoreboard early and often against a Cats defence still considered pretty rock solid compared to most teams.

Banking on the three marking forwards of Geelong to give Port Adelaide trouble, both in the air and on the ground. Leaning to the Cats in a contested footy war.

Pick Geelong by 6

🍻 Pub bet
Full Time Tri Bet
Either team under 12.5 points
$2.96 with TopSport

AFL Finals Week 1: Sydney v GWS

For a more in-depth look at the game styles of these two teams, check out a piece we wrote for Stats Insider during the week. Those guys do a great job at providing some incredible content across a whole range of sports. Well worth checking out all of their content when you can.

A stoppage grind or a ball movement masterclass? Those are the two options on the table in this contest. Whoever can get the game on their terms the longest will win.

The Swans have turned into the second favourite team for many. Their offensive weaponry and exciting brand of footy (wouldn’t have said that a few years ago) have made them one of the most watchable sides in the competition. Is that open kicking game suited to a finals series, though? We are about to find out.

Team Selection

  • Mills out of the side again with his nagging injury, which some (including their coach) have said was born out of his enforced 14-day isolation period. With no Kennedy and Blakey out of their best side, things just a bit more difficult for the Swans. Love what Chad Warner has produced so far, so good to see him back.

  • Mumford back into the side ready to go out with a bang (or a biff?). Sam Reid and Tom Green handy inclusions as well. Loading up with contested ball players, the Giants. Interesting.

The Case for Sydney

Footy is a hard game to win if you struggle to score. That shouldn’t be a problem for Sydney if they get even an average amount of supply. Any side with Franklin, Heeney, Papley and Hayward will trouble even the best defences. And the Giants are far from the best.

The Swans might know they are a rung below the stoppage power of GWS, particularly with Mills and Kennedy absent. But losing the territory battle might not trouble them too much, given there is no team more lethal than the Swans at moving the ball from D50 to I50 this season. And scoring.

But unlike a team such as Melbourne, who win it back in their defensive half through intercept marking, the Swans do it much differently. They sit dead last for intercept marks backward of centre, yet still find a way to slice you up once they do get it back. Even with limited opportunities they can exploit you on offence from any position on the ground.

So unless the Giants can lift their ball movement and find plenty of marks up forward, Sydney can still absorb negative field position and move it down the field into an open forward line stacked with talent. They can’t get dragged down to the Giants’ level though.

The Case for GWS

GWS have one way to win this – lock the whole thing down and defend like their lives depend on it. With Mills and Kennedy on the sidelines, their midfield bulls should be steeling themselves for plenty of stoppages and a contested ball war of attrition. Can Lachie Ash take care of Luke Parker?

The big query is whether the Giants can contain the Swans’ scoring enough to compete. Sydney have posted five scores of 90+ in their past six matches. One of those was against GWS in Round 18, where not even a masterclass from Sam Taylor could save them from a nine goal to two second half. Taylor has been pivotal in their recent form. Big job ahead of him on Saturday.

So it is mouthguards in, bash and crash footy or bust for the Giants. Hitting the scoreboard early would help too. They did it in Round 18 against the Swans, who have won only two first terms in the past six weeks. Big job for Greene, Himmelberg and Hogan to give them some old-fashioned “reward for effort” early on.

The Verdict

Torn on this one because of the GWS edge through the middle, especially given Sydney’s injuries. As much as the Giants’ style probably suits finals football a little more, the scoring power of Sydney is pretty hard to ignore. Even in a close one they will still have so many options up forward that it makes them incredibly unpredictable – as long as they aren’t too Buddy conscious.

Big watch on the conditions – any significant wind and it could bring the sides a little closer together. The Swans are fine with the ball on the deck, but any sort of gusty wind and it makes ball movement a lot harder. Tassie locals, fill us in on Saturday morning!

The Swans won’t want the ball living in their back half even if they are a strong ball movement side, so they will need to earn their share of turnovers forward of centre. If they do that and avoid a dour stoppage battle, then they win.

Pick Sydney by 8

🍻 Pub bet
Full Time Tri Bet
Either team under 15.5 points
$2.47 with TopSport

AFL Finals Week 1: Melbourne v Brisbane

Have the Demons found the sort of intangible element that made Richmond so successful over the past five years? They have so much in common with the Tigers premiership sides – a small core group of genuine A-grade talent (Gawn, Oliver, Petracca, May, Lever), a middle tier with enough experience to hold their own (10 players between 100 and 150 games took the field last weekend), and a large number of genuine soldiers who simply play their role.

The Lions’ profile is quite different. They are evenly spread in terms of experience – of last week’s team it was an even split of players over/under 100 games played. Are they as evenly spread in terms of output though? It’s a hard thing to quantify, but generally speaking it does appear like the Lions’ fortunes are dependent on their stars performing, particularly up forward.

An intriguing matchup here with the highest scoring team of the year up against the most miserly defence.

Team Selection

  • The Dees have been settled for weeks. No changes. They all know their role. Ready to go.

  • The Lions welcome back Harris Andrews and Mitch Robinson. Two handy inclusions if they are going to pull off the upset. The Adams/Andrews combo can cause issues for Melbourne. More on that below.

The Case for Melbourne

Many had been waiting for Melbourne to regress at some point in the season. It never came. Their biggest dip in form was probably four-week block between Round 16 and 19, where scoring was their biggest issue.

Since that time they have destroyed a couple of poor teams to give them some offensive confidence, beaten the Eagles at Optus Stadium and performed one of the most remarkable comebacks in recent history last week over Geelong.

There are two ways to assess their first half against the Cats last week. Some will say the Dees were exposed on defence, failing to win the ball back often enough against a quality side. While that is true, the other angle is that those quarters or halves have happened to every side – their ability to bring the margin back confirms this side has the kind of ticker that should stand up well in a finals series.

This Demons team is built on defence, the perfect platform in one of the most even finals series in recent memory. Hard to believe they’ve conceded 90 points only once this season. Even harder to believe it was the Crows who managed to do it.

Qualifying finals are traditionally an absolute arm wrestle where 90+ scorelines are rare. Only Richmond have managed to do it since 2017. Defence wins finals. Melbourne have the weapons to contain the Lions, similar to the way they got the job done in Round 12. In that contest, Melbourne were able to consistently find turnovers and score – thirteen scoring shots from midfield turnovers to five that night.

While the spread of goalkicking options for the Lions will be a challenge, the Demons defence matches up well against their front six. At a venue like Adelaide Oval, there should be no issues moving the ball when they win it back – Melbourne are a top two side at D50 to I50 conversion. And given they have the best time in forward half percentage in the league, their all-round game has most bases covered here.

Viewing the Dees’ spread of scoring options as an advantage, even though they don’t have a super dominant key forward. Their inside 50 delivery becomes super important – lowering their eyes and picking out the right target is the key, no matter who is on the end of it.

The Case for Brisbane

In some ways this is a free hit for Brisbane given they were gifted a top four spot by the Bulldogs. They are in cracking form, of course – 100 points in four of their past five matches, playing some seriously exciting footy.

The big query is whether they have the right lead-up matches coming into a qualifying final away from home. They’ve played only two other finalists in the second half of the year, one of them a loss to Melbourne. No side has applied a 190+ pressure rating against them in the past nine games – they need to expect a minimum of that figure this weekend.

If you take it on trust that the Lions are the kind of side to be able to absorb a high pressure rating and thrive on the finals challenge, then they have a window of opportunity. Particularly through the middle.

As the best Centre Bounce scoring side in the competition, the Lions can match it with Melbourne (who are actually just below them in second). With Lyons, Neale, and Zorko in there, it’s critical for them to find the balance between winning the ball and making sure the Demons mids don’t get silver service from Max Gawn. Big job for Oscar McInerney to compete.

Down back the underrated Marcus Adams is the absolute key to their fortunes. If he can anchor that Lions defence in his second game back from injury, then Brisbane have an intercept mark duo of their own (Harris Andrews being the other) to rival May and Lever up the other end. Containing the talls won’t be the only challenge for the Lions defence but it would go a long way towards helping them win.

The Verdict

The rock solid defensive system of Melbourne up against the offensive flair of Brisbane. Expecting Melbourne to bring a kind of pressure the Lions haven’t been used to lately, and turn the ball over often enough to create plenty of scoring opportunities for themselves.

The all round game of the Dees is hard to ignore. Can Brisbane play with a bit of freedom knowing they get a second chance if they fail? That could obviously backfire on them in this game given how well Melbourne defend, but it’s well worth a shot.

Backing in the best performed team of the year on a neutral ground where they play pretty good football.

Pick Melbourne by 19

🍻 Pub bet
Melbourne -5.5
$1.95 with TopSport

AFL Finals Week 1: Western Bulldogs v Essendon

The Dogs have fallen out of form at precisely the wrong time. Three losses in a row, costing them a top four spot, now facing an Essendon side in reasonable form on a neutral ground. Is it too late to fix their issues?

In short, not it’s not. Talent and class don’t disappear overnight. They are a better side than Essendon but their recent form means this will be harder than it should be. They might only need to sneak over the line here to gain some much needed confidence and head into a semi-final with a win under the belt.

Let’s not forget the Bombers still have the spectre of their finals record hanging over their head. In most years, any team heading into an elimination final after a 10-win season has basically nothing to lose. That would be the case for Essendon if it wasn’t for the potential of another finals defeat adding to their 6000+ day winning drought. Sets up for a cracker.

Team Selection

  • The one we’ve all been waiting for: no sign of Stefan Martin for the Dogs. Interesting. Only an extended bench right now, but an indication that the Dogs might be thinking of including Ryan Gardner for some extra help down back

  • Phillips into the squad (will they go ultra-tall? Probably not), and potentially our first look at Jye Caldwell since Round 2. Do they need him? Unlikely.

The Case for Western Bulldogs

No one has enjoyed more supply into their forward 50 this season than the Bulldogs. You don’t have to go back too far to find their +21 inside 50 differential against Essendon in Round 21. A game where they lost by 13-points but managed a +34 expected score. They dominated Essendon everywhere but the scoreboard, with some incredible misses. Confidence dented, they dropped the next two games.

The Dogs might be the most confidence-dependent side in the whole competition, closely followed by the Bombers. Can they recapture their mojo early in this contest? They’ve only dropped one first term in their past six games, so a fast start might get them back in business. Hopefully this time their conversion doesn’t let them down.

Despite playing a pretty exciting brand of footy, the Bombers are still reasonably easy to score against. The are in the bottom half of the competition for conceding goals per inside 50, easily the worst figure of any of the finalists. This has improved markedly in the past six weeks but it’s still an area where the Dogs can exploit them.

We know the Dogs midfield has been under the pump lately, even from their coach. The goal against Essendon will be to simply break even and get the ball to the outside. Prior to the last six weeks, post-clearance contested possession was their specialty. They can get back to that here with the right mindset and execution.

The Case for Essendon

The evolution of Essendon from a turnover team into a stoppage team has been fun to watch. On the back of Jake Stringer and a few other tweaks, the Bombers have been dynamite from Centre Bounce and around the ground clearances. Top three at scoring over the past six weeks, with the Dogs languishing all the way down in 15th.

So they face the red, white and blue at the best possible time. Completely devoid of confidence at stoppages, with a lack of faith in their ruck division, in a part of the game where Essendon have excelled recently. There is the window of opportunity. Draper up against an untrustworthy Tim English, and Stringer, Parish, Merrett and Shiel can more than match it with the Dogs mids. Game on.

From a pressure standpoint, the Bombers will study their Round 21 game for the blueprint here. It was their highest pressure game in the second half of their season, and forced the Dogs into a much more scrappy contest than they would like. Pressure alone won’t get the job done (remember, the Dogs did dominate that match) but it’s a good starting point. Hopefully with two consecutive games under 170, they haven’t been softened up for this one.

If the Bombers can bring the heat early but also lock down a little better defensively compared to the last time they met, they are in with a shot. Josh Bruce managed five scoring shots that day and obviously won’t be there this weekend. The top sides have been able to get through and hit the scoreboard more often than they would like, so a lot of the pressure ends up on the shoulders of their back six.

The Verdict

Expecting the Bulldogs to lift here. The past few weeks they have played like a side just hoping to win, rather than willing themselves to do it. There was enough evidence in their game against Port to suggest it’s not all doom and gloom – defensively they were very good. Is the Bombers offence at the same level as Port? Not so sure.

Alex Keath v Peter Wright (who kicked seven last time they met with Keath absent) could be the pivotal matchup. If the Bombers had another strong key forward it might stretch the Dogs, but this time he is unlikely to get things his own way. And again, despite his massive bag the Dogs still should have won that game.

Bombers with an edge at stoppage. Dogs with the class in open play. Margin very tough to predict in a match like this – if the wheels fall off either side, the other team are well placed to just run all over them and pile up the goals. No result would surprise here.

Pick Western Bulldogs by 22

🍻 Pub bet
Bulldogs -9.5
$1.90 with TopSport

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