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Footy Forensics: It's crunch time

Think it's okay for your club to slowly work its way into the season? Think again. Statistics show the early rounds do more than any other point in the season to set teams on a path to finals - or not.

August footy has nothing on March and April. Sure, August has the run home to the finals, with a few frantic teams trying to displace each other in the top eight or top four. But the real crunch time in the hunt for finals spots is now - the early rounds do more than any other point in the season to set teams on a different path through the year.

Each AFL club wins an average of 11 games per home-and-away season. But this average is dramatically different for teams that win their early games compared to those that lose at the start of the year. On average, sides that win their first game of the year go on to win 12.3 matches in the home-and-away season, while Round 1 losers average only 9.7 regular-season wins. So, teams that start the season with a victory average 2.6 more regular season wins than those that start the season with a loss. That's a huge difference, far bigger than the disparity at other points in the season.

The early rounds play a huge role in clubs' fates for the year. Start the season with two wins and your team is on pace to win 14 for the year and almost certainly make the finals. Kick off with a couple of losses, and all of a sudden you're on pace to win only eight games all year. Win the first four straight, and history suggests you're on pace to win 15.2 regular season games; lose the first four and you can expect to win an average of just 5.4 for the year.


Average wins over the home-and-away season for teams with a given record in their first four games:

Wins or losses in the first few weeks of the season can put sides on very different paths. Teams almost always go on to make the finals after winning their first four - in fact, 83.8 percent of clubs since 1994 that have started the season 4-0 went on to make the finals.

Missing the finals after a perfect start to the year is very uncommon. The 2013 Bombers did it - but they won enough games to play in September before being disqualified by the league. The 2012 Bombers also fell short after winning their first four straight, as did the 2010 Lions. Beyond that, we have to look back into the murky depths of history to the 2000 Magpies, 1999 Cats and 1996 Crows, the only other teams to have had a perfect first month of the season and then miss the eight.

By contrast, no team has ever lost their first four games and then made the finals. Since 1994, when the top eight was introduced, 32 teams have started the season with a winless first month - the best that any of them have managed to do was the Kangaroos' 10 wins in 2011, which left them a game and a half short of playing finals footy.

The difference between sides that have gone 3-1 in the first month and those that split the month 2-2 is particularly telling. Win three of the first four and, history suggests, you've got a 79.3 percent chance of making the finals. Win two and lose two, and you're not even a 50 percent chance.

Of course, there are examples of teams that started the year shakily but went on to play September football. The most successful of these were the 2014 Swans - they won just one game in their first month but went on to finish the regular season on top of the ladder. The 2014 Richmond side also gives some cause for optimism for slow-starting teams. The Tigers went 1-3 in the first month, and won only three from their first 13, before stringing together an improbable run home to snatch eighth place on the ladder. But these examples are the exception, rather than the rule. An overwhelming proportion of teams (74.2 percent) that win only one game in their first four do not make the finals. History tells us the first month matters.

But the historical figures can't tell us everything. If GWS start the year 2-2, and Carlton surprise us all and start 3-1, most observers would still give the Giants a better shot at playing finals footy than the Blues. To get a better estimate of how each club's true chance of making the finals will evolve with its results in the coming weeks, we can use our Elo model. These calculations show that crunch time for footy teams is now, at the start of the season - their chance of playing finals will change dramatically based on their win-loss records over the coming few weeks.

Winning a game affects teams' finals chances in three ways. First, a win is a win - you need about 12 or 13 or them to make it into the final eight, so each one counts a little towards that total. Second, winning a game takes away a potential victory from your opponent, which can make a big difference if they're scrapping for the same spot. Finally, winning a game should cause us to reassess, even a little, how good a team is, which affects how likely we think they are to win their remaining games, which in turn determines their chances of making the finals. Not all wins are created equal - if a side has a particularly impressive victory against a difficult opponent, their rating will rise by more than if they scrape home against mediocre opposition. Our Elo-based simulations take all this into account - we run through the season 10 000 times, running through all sorts of different ways the remaining games could go.

We've run through these simulations to estimate how each team's chance of making the finals will evolve in the coming weeks, depending on whether they win or lose. For example, the Elo model currently thinks Carlton has about an 8% chance of making the finals. If they win their next three games, we estimate that they'll be 27.5% likely to play in the finals; if they drop the next three, we give them only a 1-in-200 (0.5%) chance of scraping into the eight. Bear in mind the estimated probabilities are averages of a range of different scenarios. If Carlton don't just win their next three games, but have a string of blowout victories, then their shot at the finals will be even higher.


How will your team's chance of making the finals evolve in the next three weeks?

The Crows' impressive 56 point thumping of the widely-fancied GWS Giants in Round 1 leaves them with an 84% chance of making the finals. Unless they lose their next three games, that figure is going to remain well north of 50% at the end of the first month.

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The likelihood of the Lions playing September football rose from grim (3.7%) to slim (5.7%) after their narrow win against the Gold Coast Suns on the weekend. If Brisbane manages to string together three wins from their next games, they'll end the first month with a 1-in-4 shot at finals footy.

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Carlton's clobbering at the hands of the Tigers has left them with less than a 10% chance of playing finals footy this year. Unless they have a perfect record over the next three rounds, there's not much prospect of that number rising by any notable amount.

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Collingwood's relatively narrow loss to the reigning Premiers hasn't damaged their finals chances too much - they've still got a better than 1-in-3 chance at making the eight. If they win two of their next three games, that figure will be above 50%.

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The Elo model underrates the Bombers for now, because it's unaware of the players the lost last year and have regained in 2017. Still, the model is catching up quickly - Essendon were given only a 6.6% chance at playing in the finals before the weekend, which has now more than doubled to 15.6%. Two wins from their next three games will be enough to leave them with a solid shot at September action.

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Before Round 1, the Elo model thought the Dockers had a 15.6% chance at making the finals. Their loss at home to the Cats has dragged that down to about 9%. Unless they win at least two of their next three, their chance of making the finals will remain in single digits.

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A win in Perth is impressive, even against a rebuilding Fremantle side. The Elo model was impressed, bumping up the Cats' chances of making the finals from 65% to 76% after the first round. Unless they flame out and lose their next three straight, it is very likely that the Cats will play finals footy this year.

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If the Suns have a perfect first month of the season, they'll have a nearly 50% chance of making the finals this year. Unless they can manage that, the prospect of playing in September seems unlikely.

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Matt Cowgill

Despite their rough start to the season, the Giants are still very likely to end up in the eight at the end of the regular season.

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Matt Cowgill

The Hawks have been graded harshly by the Elo model for getting beaten by the Bombers, partly because the model hasn't quite caught up with the new Essendon side. As a result, Hawthorn's finals chances have been downgraded to about 44%; if they win two of their next three games they'll be back above 50%.

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The Demons currently have a better chance of making the finals than Hawthorn, according to our Elo-based simulations. That must be the first time in quite a number of years that that has been true. The Demons currently have a 53% shot at September footy; unless they lose two of their next three, they'll still have a better-than-even shot at the end of the first month.

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The Kangaroos currently have about a 1-in-3 chance of making the finals, but they may be a little overrated by the Elo model.

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Port Adelaide impressed viewers in their away win against last year's runner ups. The Elo model was similarly impressed, upgrading the Power's chance of playing in the finals this year to 71%. There's genuine cause for Port fans to get excited, and not just about their looming game in China.

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Tigers fans should be cautious with their optimism at this point. Their chance of making the finals has risen to nearly 40%, but that still leaves a 60% chance of missing the eight. Two wins from their next three would make finals more likely than not for Richmond.

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The Saints' 25% chance at making the finals is nothing to sneeze at, but it's a little down on their 37% pre-season figure. Their challenging Round 2 match up against West Coast in Perth gives St Kilda a chance to more than make up their lost ground - if they win that one, they'll have a 45% chance of ending up in the eight come the business end of the season.

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The Swans faithful won't have been happy with their home loss to Port Adelaide in the first round of the season, but they're still a favourite to make the eight. Unless they have a disastrous 0-4 start to the year, the Swans will still be a better-than-even chance of playing in September.

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Winning away from home against the Kangaroos has left West Coast with a 4-in-5 chance of making finals footy. Losing this week against the Saints at home would do the most to damage those chances, but finals will still look likely for the Eagles unless they drop their next three.

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The Elo model isn't a Dogs doubter. Unless they flame out over the next few weeks, we can comfortably assume the reigning Premiers will be playing finals footy this year.

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Hope is still alive for every team in the AFL. Even the Lions have a 1-in-20 chance of making the finals this year, which is a lot better than a Lotto ticket. But the next few weeks will be crucial to defining clubs' fates. Crunch time is now in the race for the top eight.

Matt CowgillMatt Cowgill is an economist by day and footy stats obsessive by night who thinks there's no such thing as too many graphs. He uses data analysis to tell stories for ESPN's Footy Forensics, as well as his own blog The Arc.

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