When the powers that be at the Adelaide Crows had a look at the 2016 fixture last year, they could've been forgiven for thinking Simon Lethlean was trying to derail their season before it started. The first eight games of the year had the Crows playing all of last year's other top nine teams in what was by far the hardest start to the season of any club.
Thoughts among the footy watching community were that if Adelaide could win half of their first eight then they would be set up nicely for the rest of the year. That's exactly what they managed, with wins over Port Adelaide, Richmond, Sydney and Fremantle, and now they are poised to secure a top four finish and maybe even a first week home final.
After having won their last seven games, by an average of eight goals, they are looking at this stage like they're the best team in it. It is worth noting that average winning margin of the last few weeks, too. It's a sign of a team that has been able to adapt as the season has progressed.
After the first eight rounds the Crows had utilised to great reward their most dangerous weapon - their multi-pronged forward line. They ranked 4th in the competition for points scored, but they also ranked 10th for points against - the worst of any of the top eight teams. After 15 rounds they now rank 1st for points scored and have climbed to 8th for points against, only slightly behind North Melbourne, Hawthorn and Greater Western Sydney.
From round 1 to 8 Adelaide conceded an average score of 98 points per game. In the last seven games they have conceded just 70 per game. That puts their season average for points against at 85, which is edging towards Premiership winning territory.
Tony Corke's Matter of Stats website uses, among others, what is called a MoSSBODS ratings system to rank teams according to their defensive and offensive capabilities. According to this system Adelaide are ranked number one in the competition.
The gif on this page illustrates perfectly how Adelaide's improved defence has seen them move from an outlier in the first third of the year to a legitimate flag contender with a third left to go.
Matter of Stats is not the only power ranking that has Adelaide at the top either. Figuring Footy, The Wooden Finger and The Squiggle Flagpole all place Adelaide in the number one spot at the end of Round 16 too.
It's not only their defence that has Adelaide in an enviable position, of course. Through their last seven wins the Crows have been able to maintain their scoring proficiency, posting at least 100 points in all the games of their current streak. Cast an eye across any usual statistical indicators and Adelaide's forward line is far and away their strongest weapon.
In categories such as disposals, marks and clearances they don't have a single player in the competition's top 10. In other categories, more specific to scoring, such as goals, goal assists and marks inside 50 they have multiple players in the top 10. In fact, the league top 10 for goals assists contains five Crows - Taylor Walker, Eddie Betts, Josh Jenkins, Mitch McGovern and Tom Lynch.
It stands to reason that as a team the Crows rank highly in these categories, too. They are 4th for marks inside 50, 3rd for inside 50s and 1st for goals and goal assists.
It could be argued that Adelaide's current winning streak is in part due to a softer draw and a blessed run of injuries, but that would do their management of the season a disservice. As far as injuries are concerned, there has been many an AFL premier that has been lucky with them. As for the draw, they have had a few easy wins over Gold Coast, St. Kilda and Carlton, but they have also been able to beat top eight teams in GWS, North Melbourne and West Coast (the only team to beat them at Subiaco this year) and beat them well. Meanwhile, fellow top four aspirants Geelong, Sydney and GWS have stumbled against teams outside the eight at various times.
From here on in the draw gets easier again for the Crows. They play only two more games against top eight teams. One is against Geelong who, after last week against Sydney, look like they can actually be beaten at home. The other is against West Coast at Adelaide Oval, who Adelaide have already beaten once this year. They could finish with 17 and possibly even 18 wins which, combined with their healthy percentage, would virtually assure a top two spot and two home finals.
Adelaide were hard to get a read on at the start of the season. They looked like they could be a middle of the road team that had just lost their best player. What is always hard to predict, though, is how much players have improved and what impact a new coach can make. Daniel Talia, Rory Sloane, Josh Jenkins and even Eddie Betts are enjoying career best seasons, while Don Pyke has shown that he is a coach that is able to adapt their game to suit their needs. Most of all, the Crows are providing an even contribution across the team. I'm prepared to say that with seven rounds left in the home and away season that Adelaide are leading the way and if they're not flag favourites with the bookmakers, they should be.