Jude Bolton's finals crystal ball

Imagine this: A first weekend of finals featuring Adelaide hosting Geelong, Richmond and GWS locking horns at the MCG, the Bulldogs travelling to Sydney to face the Swans in an elimination final, and another knockout clash between Port and Essendon at Adelaide Oval.

I've analysed the current ladder and final three rounds of the home and away season and that's how I predict the first week of finals playing out.

This season has been as unpredictable as it has been exciting, so I fully expect some egg on my face come the end of August. As it stands, I can't see any change to the teams inside the top eight. The positions inside that top eight, however, could change dramatically. The Crows are red-hot and are almost givens to win the minor premiership, but the teams below them are fighting tooth and nail to give themselves the best chance in September.

So long a perennial underachiever, Richmond have proven themselves to be a legitimate premiership contender and I think they can leapfrog the Giants to finish second. Their run home isn't easy - they have the Cats, then a tough road trip to take on the Dockers, and finish with the Saints. The Geelong game is obviously monstrous but they take on the Cats at a good time and if they get the job done on Saturday down at Simonds Stadium, I see them jumping over the Giants into second and securing a double chance. Wouldn't that be something?

The Giants have the Dogs this Friday night in a blockbuster at Etihad Stadium which could go either way, then they have West Coast at home, and finish with Geelong at Simonds Stadium, so that's extremely tough. They are starting to look ominous now and could win all three, but I see them dropping one of those assignments.

Geelong suddenly look a tad vulnerable. They were so disappointing against the Swans last Friday night and their reliance on their stars is concerning. Any team can be crippled if you take away their best players and they were obviously without Patrick Dangerfield against the Swans, while Joel Selwood got injured and struggled through the match. He's now out until the start of the finals at best, and Tom Hawkins and Mitch Duncan are suspended, so the pressure is mounting at the Cattery. They'd want to make a statement in their final games - Richmond, Collingwood and GWS, which is a very tough run home and I think their spot in the top four might be jeopardy.

The Swans are mounting a serious challenge, but I think it's more likely they'll host an elimination rather than sneaking into the top four. But as the Bulldogs proved last year, if a team gets on a serious roll through September, a flag from outside the top four is possible. The Swans have been in scary form and I think they've got that fear factor back - other teams wouldn't want to come up against them in the finals. And then there's the unknown of Lance Franklin, who has been subdued in recent weeks. If he turns it on, anything can happen.

The Power have been shown up on occasions this season - last week's horror Showdown loss to the Crows a prime example - but I think they've banked enough wins and have enough quality across the park to earn a home elimination final.

The battle to squeeze into the lower part of the eight is fascinating. It's staggeringly close but I think Essendon have the rails run. This week's game against Adelaide is massive, and then they play Gold Coast and Fremantle. If they jag two of three, they will likely make it. I also think the Bulldogs will get a chance to defend their premiership by sneaking into eighth spot.

Two teams that have been down for a long time are the Demons and Saints, but unfortunately for their supporters, I doubt either will play finals. Melbourne look like they've cooked themselves, which is so disappointing after their bright start to the season, and they have to improve dramatically over the final three weeks if they're to break a finals drought dating back to 2006. However, they do have one of the softer draws coming home - St Kilda, Brisbane and Collingwood - so if they're good enough, they should be able to bag all three. But I'm not sure they've got the consistency to do so.

It's a virtual elimination final against the Saints this weekend, and if the Saints get over the line, they then play North and Richmond - that's a reasonable run but it all starts with the clash against Melbourne. They can produce elite footy but they're also so inconsistent. I think they just miss out.

I also doubt West Coast make it. They should beat Carlton this weekend but then they've got the Giants and Adelaide. That's a seriously tough run home - they're just not playing good enough footy at the moment to play finals from here.

Every top eight team has stunk it up at various stages this year, so it shows you just have to be 'on' every minute of every game. Sides just have to maintain the rage for as long as they can - momentum can change and you have to take advantage of that when you can.

After all that, this is my end-of-season top eight, with the Crows, Tigers, Giants and Swans to fight it out for the premiership:


Port Adelaide
Western Bulldogs