McGuane: The team ticking all the flag boxes
Five teams are ahead of Geelong in the TAB's ever-changing 2021 premiership market.
But after eight rounds - a good sample size - I've got the Cats as a clear favourite in 'Mick's Market' after what they have done over the past month, most notably their demolition of the Tigers.
The TAB has Chris Scott's team at $6.50, behind Melbourne and Richmond ($5.50) and Port Adelaide and Western Bulldogs ($6). I've got them leading my market at $4.50.
Watch the 2021 Toyota AFL Premiership Season. Every match of every round Live on Kayo. New to Kayo? Try 14-Days Free Now >
My top three seeds are Geelong, Port Adelaide and Melbourne.
The next rung below sit the Western Bulldogs, Richmond, West Coast and Brisbane Lions.
The teams who can shape the final eight - but who can't win the flag - are Sydney, St Kilda, GWS, Fremantle and Carlton.
The basis to become a premiership team comes down to talent, competitiveness and system.
But they must also possess a shared vision, set high standards, have a great work ethic, be a team that is growth minded with no entitlements, and one that respects and trusts each other.
Geelong measures highly in all of these.
The Cats have won me over in the past month.
I've been banging on about wanting to see them play with more speed for a long time to ensure they utilise the talent at their disposal.
The Cats game style has changed, and it might prove a premiership-winning move.
They have become a high volume team in terms of disposals (ranked No.1 in Rounds 5-8); and look a better team when keeping the ball in motion by becoming the highest handball team of the past four weeks.
The greatest adjustment relates to their contested ball winning ability, which has been revived.
They were +33 in contested ball numbers against Richmond, +34 against the Swans, +25 versus West Coast and +30 against North Melbourne.
Their slow start to 2021 might have had something to do with their late finish last season and having key personnel, including Jeremy Cameron, on the sidelines.
They are match hardened now and while they were -5 in contested possession differential in the first month, they are now +30.2.
The clearance differential is back at good levels, which equates to good territory to supply the likes of key forwards Cameron, Tom Hawkins and Gary Rohan, while the smalls Luke Dahlhaus, Bradley Close and Brandan Parfitt are also benefiting.
It is no coincidence the Cats' time-in-forward half differential sees them +10.49 mins - ranked No.1 in the AFL.
Experienced recruits Cameron, Isaac Smith and Shaun Higgins will only get better so there is a clear upside.
That third quarter - 8.4 - against Richmond had all the hallmarks of a team capable of winning the flag.
There is less of a reliance on Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield as other individuals are rapidly improving their game.
Danger is still at least a month away from returning, but can be another weapon in the middle of the ground on his return.
Their scoring profile is rising. It was 75 in the first four rounds; 106 in the last four.
The Cats were also giving up 83 points in Rounds 1-4, but the last month has seen them restrict the opposition to 60. That's a "premiership" scoring balance coaches like to aim for - strong in attack and miserly in defence.
We'll learn more about Port's flag credentials on Saturday night when Ken Hinkley's team takes on Western Bulldogs.
Port's two losses have come on the road (against West Coast by 37 points and Brisbane by 49), and they sit at one win (Richmond) and two losses against current top eight sides.
Their Achilles heel last year was their defence - not any more!
They defend strongly, are aggressive with their rolling press, Tom Clurey is having a standout season and Aliir Aliir has been a huge addition.
The Power give up only 69 points in a game, third in the AFL, thanks in part to their aggressive halfbacks in Hamish Hartlett and Darcy Byrne-Jones.
Opposition teams struggle to move the ball from D50 to inside 50, due to Port Adelaide's ability to set up the ground defensively.
They are ranked 16th for mark-play on percentage, which is a surprise.
Scott Lycett's suspension will hurt in the short-term but creates an opportunity for Peter Ladhams.
This is where the leadership of Travis Boak and Ollie Wines will be so critical around the ball, particularly against the Bulldogs' mids.
There is less of a reliance on Charlie Dixon, with some other more consistent avenues to goal.
Dixon's attack on the ball remains strong, and if he doesn't mark the ball he is creating ground ball opportunities for his small forwards.
He is third (12) on the club's goal kicking list behind Orazio Fantasia (15) and Mitch Georgiadis (14), which makes his team less one-dimensional.
It's impossible to ignore the Demons' 8-0 start, including the scalps of Geelong, Richmond and Sydney.
The Demons are ranked No.1 in the pressure factor but also in post-clearance pressure factor.
This is the template for winning finals. It cannot be a sometimes thing; it has to be an all time thing.
They are a hard team to score against.
The next big challenge comes in Rounds 12 and 13, with games against the Bulldogs at Marvel Stadium and Brisbane in Alice Springs.
Mark Neeld once declared he wanted Melbourne to be hard to play against. They weren't … far from it.
But almost a decade on, this 2021 version under Goodwin is very hard to play against.
Steven May and Jake Lever have been good; Harrison Petty has replaced Adam Tomlinson; while Michael Hibberd is a very important player.
Jack Viney will come back to assist their strong contested-ball winning attributes.
The Demons have a simple brand, revolving around winning contested ball and contest, gaining territory and time in forward half.
My one query is whether their firepower will hold up for them in finals.
They have kicked 100 or more points only three times this year - against North Melbourne, Hawthorn and Greater Western Sydney.
Can they do that against the best sides in September? Can their big forwards produce in the finals? You can't rely too heavily on Bayley Fritsch and Kozzie Pickett, who are first/second on their goal kicking at the moment.
NEXT RUNG DOWN
Games are won and lost in the middle, and the Dogs have Marcus Bontempelli and a plethora of other mids.
My concern is if they lose the midfield battle, key defenders in Alex Keath and Zaine Cordy can be exposed. There was no greater example when Richmond's Tom Lynch made them look second rate two weeks ago.
The Bulldogs' defence needs Bailey Williams back to complement Caleb Daniel, Hayden Crozier, Bailey Dale and Taylor Duryea.
Luke Beveridge should send Jason Johannisen back at some stage. We know the damage he can do on the biggest stage.
They have won only 32 percent of defensive one-on-one - ranked 13th - and lost 31 percent of defensive one-on-ones - 15th.
Tim English continued development as a forward is crucial as I doubt whether Aaron Naughton and Josh Bruce can get the job done alone in finals.
English is their X-factor come September.
The Dogs are an impressive 7-1, but we will get a litmus test this weekend.
I'm not giving up on the Tigers … yet. Their best is good enough to win it again.
They have been the victims of their own success.
In winning three of the past four flags, Damien Hardwick hasn't had much of a chance to bring through the next generation of players.
The current injury list, which includes Trent Cotchin, Dion Prestia, Shane Edwards, Kane Lambert and Shai Bolton, will provide that opportunity in the next few weeks.
The optimist in me thinks bringing in that next tier of young players will help set them up in the long-term, even if it won't be easy short term.
They lost in and around the contest against the Cats, which can happen when you lose talented midfielders.
The Tigers have the Giants, the Lions, the Crows and the Bombers across the next month.
They need to become more efficient when going inside 50m.
The positive is that their brand is a sustainable one. They are a strong inside 50 differential team and a time in forward half team.
They create turnovers through pressure and can score off the back of those turnovers.
Watch their on-field pressure rise this week.
The Lions possess a simple brand : it's all about contest and territory.
Chris Fagan's team has tightened up defensively from Rounds 4 to 8, which has seen them ranked the 3rd best side, only giving up 63 points.
The three weeks before that they had leaked 93.
Their capacity to score from turnover has also lifted, with a shift of five goals after Round 3.
The Lions were not competitive enough in the first few weeks of the season, but their contested possession differential has seen a swing of 22 in the last five rounds - from -10.7 to +11.2.
And they are doing it now with Brownlow Medallist Lachie Neale.
The forward combination of Eric Hipwood, Charlie Cameron and Joe Daniher are dangerous for any opposition to defend against.
The Eagles have won all four games at home, against Gold Coast, Port Adelaide, Collingwood and Fremantle.
But West Coast has lost on the road to the Western Bulldogs (after being in front at three-quarter-time), St Kilda (after leading by 28 points at half time and having a goalless final term) and Geelong (where they kicked 5.9 in a 97-point loss).
Their flag hopes could be determined in Rounds 14 and 15 when they meet Richmond and the Bulldogs in back-to-back games in Perth.
Liam Ryan's absence is hurting the team. He complements Jack Darling, Josh Kennedy and Oscar Allen and helps form an awesome foursome.
Tom Barrass, Jeremy McGovern and Shannon Hurn are still so important to the Eagles' defensive structure.
Nic Naitanui's dominance at centre bounces is crucial, especially without Luke Shuey and Elliot Yeo.
As I said leading into the 2018 finals, the Eagles must clean up their ground ball differential. They responded and got the ultimate reward.
They have lost this count by an average of -17.2 this year, which sees them ranked LAST.
The Eagles have also conceded a score from 48 percent of their opposition inside 50s this season, which sees them ranked 17th. Only winless North Melbourne have fared worse.
COULD STILL SHAPE THE 8
The Swans are the surprise packets to date, but can John Longmire's team sustain that throughout the season?
They have beaten Brisbane, Richmond and Geelong.
We will know where they sit in five weeks with games against Collingwood, Fremantle, Carlton, St Kilda and Hawthorn to come. They may have 10 wins before their Round 14 bye.
The AFL's enigma - terrible one week; tempting the next.
The Saints' inconsistencies in effort and output must frustrate the hell out of Brett Ratten, and they face a real test in the next fortnight with Geelong and Western Bulldogs.
On the evidence so far, St Kilda can't yet be trusted.
FREMANTLE, GWS and CARLTON
I can't see any of these three teams making an impact on the finals.
The Dockers must improve their forward half game. They rank only 14th for forward half turnovers, 16th for forward half intercepts and 16th for points generated from forward half chains. That's not a finals bound team.
Unless Carlton can get a better balance between attack and defence, they won't be playing finals.
It is no surprise to me that the Giants' 2021 turnaround has come when Toby Greene has stepped in as acting skipper. He's a star, and with no disrespect to the injured captain Stephen Coniglio, I'd be having a conversation internally about the long-term leadership of the club.
Originally published as McGuane: The team ticking all the flag boxes