In this week's Nine things we learned, we discover that Geelong isn't quite the same without its star rebounding defender, the Blues have hit a new low and the contenders should be worried about GWS. 

1. Replacing Tom Stewart won't be easy

Geelong got away with a slow start against St Kilda, but will struggle with similar first-quarter performances in the finals. Max King ran riot in the first 20 minutes, with Jack Henry struggling to keep up and the intercepting/third man up skills of two-time Therabody AFL All-Australian Tom Stewart sorely missed. The Cats adjusted as the game wore on, but were also lacking the creative bounce off half-back that Stewart provides. Compounding the potentially season-ending injury is the absence of defenders Zach Tuohy (hamstring, another 2-3 weeks) and Tom Atkins, who was a test for the Saints game with a back injury. - Sarah Black

2. This is the bleakest time to be Blue

Carlton is back to where it was two seasons ago. And four seasons before that. And two seasons before that. And five seasons before that. Once again, the Blues are coming towards the end of a horror campaign. This one will stretch their finals drought to eight years. Having shot into a 23-point lead against Port Adelaide on Saturday evening, Carlton then conceded 19 consecutive goals, didn't kick a major itself for more than a half of football, and lost by 95 points. It was a performance that put all of the club's failings under the spotlight. From the coaching, to the recruiting, to the fitness, to everything in between. After so many attempts at kickstarting this club, yet another summer of upheaval looms. - Riley Beveridge

3. Greater Western Sydney can cause real finals damage

All the talk after the Giants' Friday night win over Richmond was about the Tigers' descent down the ladder and the end of their hopes of nabbing a third consecutive premiership. And that's fair enough, because Richmond has been one of the teams of the century. But lost in that was the Giants' growing credentials to make a mark in the finals after the impressive win, which followed their season-defining win over Geelong last week. They will get Toby Greene (suspension) back next week, maybe Stephen Coniglio (toe) and NAB AFL Rising Star contender Tom Green (hamstring), and can lock in a finals spot by beating Carlton. If they get there, there is enough talent in this group to make it further than just an elimination final. - Callum Twomey

4. The gap in the west has closed 

There was a sense from early on at Optus Stadium that the Dockers would no longer tolerate being beaten up in Western Derbies like they had on the past 11 occasions. Club greats Shaun McManus and Paul Hasleby had called for a line in the sand to be drawn by the current team, and they did that in a first-quarter ambush that put their more senior opponents on the back foot. They were more physical and were best typified by young star Caleb Serong, who dismissed Jack Redden's tackling attempt and was at the Eagles all day in a best-on-ground performance. The Eagles and Dockers appear to be heading in different directions and West Coast's era of Derby domination is over. - Nathan Schmook

5. If Essendon sneaks into finals, Stringer could do anything

There's still a big question mark over whether the Bombers can make it into the eight, but if they do, there'll be some nervous teams ahead of them. At the top of an increasing list of problems Essendon poses is Jake Stringer. His five goals against Gold Coast told only half the story, with Stringer's explosive centre clearances a major factor in ripping the game away from the Suns. Then when he drifted forward there no answer, with a package of goals the envy of many – a bomb from outside 50, a left-footed snap on the run and a right-footed around-the-corner set shot among his five majors. Stringer is a nightmare match-up and gives Essendon a puncher's chance against anyone. - Michael Whiting

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The Package delivers five-star outing

Jake Stringer was at his explosive best with a five-goal in a dominant display

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6. Dayne Zorko is Brisbane's heartbeat

It should come as no surprise that Brisbane's resurgence over the past two matches has captain Dayne Zorko's fingerprints all over it. With his team low on energy the previous month, Zorko took it upon himself to lead from the front, pressuring, harassing and dominating against Fremantle, and then backing it up against Collingwood on Saturday night with an equally vigorous outing. It's not always clean, but there's always intent, and Zorko's teammates feed off his infectious energy. The skipper has the bigger picture in mind as well, passing off an easy shot at goal for an even better one for Nakia Cockatoo – a man he knows is crucial to Brisbane's finals ambitions. - Michael Whiting

7. The Dogs have a major midfield problem

The Western Bulldogs are renowned for having one of the best midfields in the competition, led by Brownlow Medal favourite Marcus Bontempelli and Therabody AFL All-Australian contenders Jack Macrae and Tom Liberatore. Throw in Adam Treloar and Josh Dunkley – who have recently returned from injury – and the Dogs seemingly have the names to overpower any opposition midfield that comes their way. But in recent weeks, the Dogs midfield has been made to look second-rate. Last week against Essendon, the Dogs lost the centre clearances by six and the clearances overall by 16. Against Hawthorn on Saturday, the Bulldogs won just four of the 14 centre clearances in a lacklustre 27-point defeat. The Dogs are badly missing Stefan Martin in the ruck, but that alone is not enough to excuse the recent form slump. Coach Luke Beveridge admitted post-game his midfield has hit a flat spot, and he will be praying his side can regain its mojo in time for finals. - Luke Michael

8. Luke Jackson deserves to be this year's Rising Star

The Demons' young ruckman has improved throughout the season and the teenager will be a much-deserved winner of the 2021 NAB AFL Rising Star award should he prevail. Jackson showed his class against the Crows on Sunday as he contributed 16 disposals, 19 hitouts, two goals and even more impressively had a whopping eight score involvements as the Dees won for the 16th time this campaign. Not many talls have won this award over the years, but it looks like that will change this year and the Demons will have a third Rising Star winner, following in the footsteps of Jared Rivers (2004) and Jesse Hogan (2015). - Jonathan Healy

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Jackson takes a one-hander and extends Dees' margin

Luke Jackson shows his class with this mark, and finishes to perfection

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9. A fine-tuned forward group can help Roos bounce

North Melbourne has used its past five first-round draft picks on midfielders but has still found forward options with plenty of potential. Eleven of the Kangaroos’ 12 goals against Sydney were kicked by players aged 23 or under, again led by key targets Nick Larkey (39 season goals) and Cam Zurhaar (31) with goalkicking midfielders Tarryn Thomas (23) and Jaidyn Stephenson (17) also chipping in. Eddie Ford (two goals, game-high 10 score involvements) added a spark in just his third run at senior level while debutant Charlie Comben (one goal) gave a glimpse of his high-flying future and what he could bring to a twin towers forward structure. The Kangaroos might have wanted to build from the midfield but their emerging forward group can now be fine-tuned in the off-season, ideally with the addition of a genuine small forward, rather than needing to be overhauled. - Martin Pegan