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Footy Forensics: Who plays finals?

Are the Hawks cooked? Are the Tigers for real? Simulations show a range of teams - even the winless Swans - still have a meaningful shot at playing finals. But the next few weeks are crucial.

If we've learned anything in the first four weeks of this season, it is to expect the unexpected. Who would have predicted Sydney and Hawthorn to still be winless? Or Richmond to be undefeated? But despite the tumultous nature of the season so far, our Elo ratings predict seven of the current top eight sides are likely to stay there through to September, with only the eighth finals spot seemingly up for grabs. Simulations of the remainder of the season show a handful of teams - including the winless Swans - retain a meaningful shot at a spot in the finals.

Adelaide is the best side in the competition at the moment, but you knew that already. After their demolition of the Dons, the Crows have an impressive Elo rating of 1676 (the average mark is 1500), which means if they played an average team on neutral territory, they'd be expected to win 73 percent of the time.

The Cats and Giants are breathing down Adelaide's neck, with ratings also solidly above 1600. The Eagles and Bulldogs are also rated well above average, as are Port and - perhaps surprisingly - the Swans.

The middle of the Elo pack is crowded, with Collingwood, St Kilda, Melbourne and North Melbourne all rated just below 1500. The Lions are the laggards, bringing up the rear with a rating of 1241, even lower than their already-abysmal pre-season mark.

Richmond's rise has been the most dramatic, with their rating soaring by nearly 75 points over the first four rounds. Their 4-0 start has taken them from being a solidly below-average team to one rated 1523, a good notch above the league average. Essendon, too, has climbed the ratings ladder, as you'd expect with their return to full strength, but their latest two losses have dampened their rise. Gold Coast's 2-2 record has lifted their rating from woeful to merely below-average, within sight of the teams that are pushing for the eight.

And as for the once-mighty Hawks? They have taken by far the biggest tumble; they're now rated below-average for the first time since 2010.

Using these Elo ratings, we can simulate the season to calculate each team's chance of making the finals. Finals chances obviously depend on how many wins a team has racked up so far, as well as their current rating and the difficulty of their remaining schedule. We run through each remaining game in the 2017 home-and-away season, simulating the season 20,000 times to calculate each club's shot at the top eight.

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These simulations show Adelaide and Geelong each have more than a 90 percent chance of playing September football after their perfect start to the year, with GWS just behind them. Richmond's shot at the finals has leapt from just one-in-four before the season started - according to our Elo model, the betting markets, and Champion Data's estimates using Official Player Ratings - to 71 percent after Round 4. The Swans and Hawks have gone in the other direction, but Sydney still has a solid shot at the top eight.

Sydney's strong showing in our simulations might raise a few eyebrows, given their 0-4 start to the year. But after ending the 2016 home and away season on top of the ladder, and finishing runners-up overall, the Elo ratings still like the Swans. Still, no team has come back from a winless first month to make the finals, at least not in the era of the top eight, which started in 1994. Despite the weight of history, the simulations still give them a 41 percent shot at finals footy from here.

It's easy to imagine them winning three of their next four (they take on GWS, Carlton, Brisbane and North) and clawing their way back towards the business end of the ladder. We're projecting the Swans will win 10.7 games this regular season; that's unlikely to be enough to make the finals, but if they exceed expectations by just a little then they should scrape in.

Using the simulations, we can show how each team's chance of making the finals is likely to evolve over the coming weeks.


Adelaide would have to seriously stumble from here to avoid the finals. Even if they lose all of their next three games, they'll still have a three-in-four chance of making it through.

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Almost no one thought Brisbane would be playing finals this year, and the Lions have done little to change that assumption. There are some green shoots of improvement for the rebuilding squad, but barring a miracle their year will be done before September. At the moment we give them a 0.5 percent - ie. one-in-two hundred - chance at ending up in the eight. Even if they win their next three on the trot, they'll still have only an 11 percent chance.

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Unlike the Lions, at least Carlton's finals chances are in the single digits rather than being a fraction of a percentage point. At the moment we give them a 3.5 percent shot; prevail improbably against Port, Sydney and Collingwood and they'll have a one-in-four shot. Realistically, this is another year of rebuilding for the Blues, with finals not a likely prospect.

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The Pies are under the pump but they are one of a pack of teams with a meaningful shot at the top eight. However, the next few weeks are crucial. Win the next three on the trot and the Pies have a better-than-even shot at September; lose their next three and they've got no chance. If they win two of their next three, they'll be back to more or less where they are now, with a roughly one-in-three chance of playing finals.

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Essendon's opening two games made a mockery of their woeful pre-season Elo rating, but successive losses to stragglers Carlton and the red-hot Crows have crimped their rise. From here, our Elo model gives the Bombers a 12 percent chance at finals - a little harsh - but they can turn that around in the coming weeks. Their draw does get a little easier though; victories against the Pies, Demons and Dockers will leave them with an even-money shot at the finals.

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You wouldn't want to write off the Dockers after their unlikely wins against the reigning premiers and the Demons away from home. Still, they face a steep uphill climb from here. Even if they win two of their next three, they'll still be overwhelmingly likely to miss the finals, with only a 22 percent chance. They need to prevail in the Derby as well as against the Kangaroos and Bombers to even have a one-in-two chance at September.

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Geelong have all but booked a berth in the finals; the question now is whether they can sew up the top two. It's easy to imagine them winning all of their next three - against the Saints, Magpies and Suns - and thereby solidifying a spot at the top.

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The Suns would most likely be happy enough with a 2-2 start to the season, but their victories haven't come against quality sides. Unless they manage to win two out of their next three - against Adelaide, North Melbourne, and Geelong - finals will remain unlikely, though not out of the question.

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Apart from their opening week stumble in Adelaide, the Giants have impressed so far, albeit not yet quite hitting the herculean heights expected of them by many. Still, they're very unlikely to miss the finals and a top-two spot remains a real possibility. If they win at least two of their next three they'll have a better than 90 percent shot at September.

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All of a sudden the Hawks don't just look mortal, but woeful. Their percentage after four games played - 56 - tells the story of just how bad their season has started. It's hard to see them scraping back to the top eight from here; wins in each of their next three games still wouldn't leave them with a one-in-three shot.

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The Demons are in that precarious bunch in the middle of the ladder, along with Collingwood and the Saints. Winning two out of their next three will be enough to remain in striking distance of the eight; winning all three of them will make a finals berth more likely than not.

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Rarely has a team so explicitly flicked the switch to 'rebuild' as the Kangaroos did at the conclusion of the 2016 season, and their 0-4 start to the year has reflected that. It's unlikely that finals were ever part of the plans at Arden Street this year, and unless they can find a way to beat the Dockers, Suns and Crows on the trot, the eight will remain out of reach.

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Port are already ensconced inside the eight with a 2-2 record after four games. They've got about a two-in-three shot of remaining there by the end of the season. If they can avoid losing to the Lions or Blues, they'll still be in a decent position even if they lose to the Eagles.

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The Tigers are sitting pretty with a 4-0 record, but two of their wins so far have come against the uncompetitive Blues and Lions. The next few weeks contains some bigger challenges. Beat fellow top eight aspirants Melbourne and the Tigers will have an 80 percent chance of making the finals; if they can then win one of their next two they'll have nearly a 90 percent chance. It would take an epic stumble from there to avoid the finals, the inverse of their improbable 2014 run home.

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If the Saints can win two out of their next three - not an easy task with a draw that includes the Cats and Giants - they'll have an even-money shot at September. Unless they can manage to beat one of those top sides, as well as Hawthorn, they'll be left with no better than a one-in-four chance.

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The Elo-based simulations give Sydney a 41 percent shot at the finals from here; a win against the Giants this weekend would see that soar above 50 percent. Unless they lose either of the easy games that follow, they'll still have nearly a 40 percent chance of playing finals. It's not farfetched to imagine Sydney sitting at 5-5 after Round 10, with a solid but far from assured chance of finals footy in their future.

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The Eagles have been arguably underwhelming in the opening month, although their 3-1 record leaves them comfortable in fifth spot. With their ageing list, a comfortable fifth won't be satisfying. Wins against the Hawks and Freo would leave West Coast with a better than 90 percent chance of making the finals, with an all-important top four spot well within their grasp.

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A victory against Brisbane is baked in to the Bulldogs' projections; winning this weekend will barely nudge the needle on their finals chances from the current 77 percent. A win against GWS the following week, on the other hand, would lift them up to nearly a 90 percent shot. Unless the premiers drop their next three games on the trot, their finals probability will remain comfortably above 50-50.

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Every month, we'll keep you updated about how your team's rating - and chance of making the finals - evolves.

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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