PORT Adelaide is, somehow, assured of a top-two spot on the AFL ladder.
For almost the entirety of Friday night's clash with the Western Bulldogs, that thought – and the idea of a guaranteed home qualifying final at the Adelaide Oval next week – looked a distant possibility.
But yet another spirited win, this one to the tune of just two points, and architected by the brilliance of star trio Travis Boak, Ollie Wines and Robbie Gray, has the travelling Port Adelaide group ready to kick their heels up for the rest of the weekend.
DOGS v POWER Full match coverage and stats
Power eyes can now be fixated on Saturday night's clash at GMHBA Stadium to see who their opponents in next week's qualifying final will be, after Bailey Smith's last-gasp effort from beyond 50m fell narrowly short at Marvel Stadium to leave the result 9.12 (66) to 10.4 (64).
The fact it was rushed through by Port Adelaide defenders, instead of sailing through for a match-winning goal, means the Western Bulldogs will conversely be sweating on Saturday afternoon's clash at the Gabba. A win for Brisbane, and a boost in percentage of just 0.1, will see a top-four spot slip from the grasp of Luke Beveridge's side.
Instead, it was Port Adelaide celebrating the prospect of a relaxing weekend. Boak (31 disposals, two goals) and Wines (34 disposals, nine tackles) had been supreme all night to set up the comeback win, while Gray's class was reflected in his 25 touches, two majors and his late match-sealing effort.
The fightback had been forced after a statement start from the Bulldogs, who had Marcus Bontempelli outwork Wines to the footy for the first and Aaron Naughton outfox direct opponent Aliir Aliir on the lead for another. When Tim English and Josh Dunkley rammed home two more, alarm bells were ringing.
Jack Macrae (29 disposals, six tackles) and Lachie Hunter (22 disposals, one goal) were busy all night and had their fingerprints all over the game's early stages, as the Bulldogs rushed out of the blocks.
Port Adelaide, having kicked 19 consecutive goals to finish last week's victory over Carlton, had suddenly conceded four straight majors to start its very next match and eyeballed a daunting 22-point deficit midway through the opening term.
But the Power soon earned a modicum of control within the contest, using it to stem the bleeding. The game went almost half an hour without a goal on either side of quarter-time, as scoring dried up and a frantic start grinded to a halt.
Next, they just needed to apply the scoreboard pressure to match. Having seemed as though they would edge their way back into the game through behinds in the second term, consecutive goals from Gray, Peter Ladhams and Connor Rozee after half-time drew the two sides level.
NERVOUS WAIT 'Flat' Bulldogs' top-four hopes hanging by a thread
All of a sudden, the Western Bulldogs needed a steadier and turned to youngster Cody Weightman to provide it. The impressive 20-year-old drilled one himself from an acute angle, before putting two more on a plate for English and Laitham Vandermeer to restore the home side's crucial buffer.
It was bitterly disappointing for Port Adelaide, which again missed crucial opportunities in front of goal at one end and conceded against the run of play at the other. Adam Treloar's pinpoint set-shot, after a period of Power territorial dominance to start the final term, reflected a night of frustration to that point for the visitors.
But the manner in which their leaders stood tall in the following minutes, with Wines and Boak both angling through difficult shots with inventive kicks, also showed their willingness to consistently fight back.
Gray's second, set up by Boak's brilliance, then gave Port Adelaide its first lead of the night with a tick under five minutes on the clock. This time, as opposed to the rest of the night, a lengthy goal drought would work in their favour.
And so it proved, as Smith's long-range effort with just 11 seconds remaining on the clock came off the fingertips of Naughton and a host of Power defenders to ensure finals football will be heading to the Adelaide Oval next week.
Big blow as Port loses Rising Star hopeful
This was not the way Mitch Georgiades wanted his season to end. After a thrilling year, where the Port Adelaide forward has emerged as a genuine NAB AFL Rising Star candidate following a 32-goal campaign, Georgiades limped from the field in the third term with a left hamstring injury and was forced to be substituted out of the contest. With the pre-finals bye scrapped this season due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation, the teenager now appears almost certain to miss next week's qualifying final at the very least. Whether he returns at all in 2021 remains to be seen and could depend on just how far the Power's journey lasts this September.
Dogs sweat as Naught is placed on report
From a selection point of view, key forward Aaron Naughton is almost the last player the Western Bulldogs can afford to lose during the finals. But there will be some nervous moments on Saturday morning, as the Match Review meets to analyse his report for a dangerous tackle on Port Adelaide skipper Tom Jonas. Continuing to grapple with his opponent after the umpire had blown his whistle for a ball-up, Naughton will perhaps strike lucky in the sense Jonas' head never appeared to make contact with the turf after he was driven into ground. It should be enough for the charge to be thrown out.
A nervous wait faces the Dogs
Port Adelaide's victory guarantees Ken Hinkley's side a home qualifying final, but defeat leaves the Western Bulldogs at risk of dropping out of the top-four. The Power will finish in the top two regardless of the result between Geelong and Melbourne at GMHBA Stadium on Saturday night. As for the Dogs, they now need results to go their way across the weekend to secure a double chance. If Brisbane beats West Coast, the Lions will leapfrog Luke Beveridge's side into the top-four. Even if they don't, Sydney could do so with a significant percentage-boosting win over Gold Coast on Saturday afternoon. It's sure to be a nervous weekend ahead for the Bulldogs.
WESTERN BULLDOGS 4.1 5.3 9.3 10.4 (64)
PORT ADELAIDE 1.3 1.8 6.10 9.12 (66)
Western Bulldogs: English 2, Bontempelli, Naughton, Dunkley, Johannisen, Weightman, Vandermeer, Hunter, Treloar
Port Adelaide: Rozee 2, Ladhams 2, Boak 2, Gray 2, Wines
Western Bulldogs: Macrae, Hunter, Daniel, Dale, B.Smith, Treloar
Port Adelaide: Boak, Wines, Gray, Lycett, Rozee, Amon
Western Bulldogs: Nil
Port Adelaide: Georgiades (hamstring)
Western Bulldogs: Schache (unused)
Port Adelaide: Mayes (replaced Georgiades)
Crowd: 0 at Marvel Stadium