HUGE comebacks, match-winning goals and controversial umpiring decisions late in games – 2021 had it all.
As the year draws to an end, AFL.com.au has trawled through the 207 games and identified the best 13 from the season.
From Zac Bailey, Gary Rohan and Max Gawn living out childhood dreams with goals after the final siren, to the 'not deliberate' call that saved Adelaide in its upset win over Melbourne, we saw just about everything.
>> VOTE FOR THE BEST GAME OF 2021 IN THE POLL BELOW
What do you think was the best game this year? Have your say in our poll below.
Geelong 12.9 (81) def Brisbane 11.14 (80), R2
Two of the premiership favourites had both lost in the opening round, so this Friday night contest at GMHBA Stadium had a bit on the line. The Cats led comfortably most of the night before a furious fourth-quarter rally from the Lions brought them to the brink of victory. In the dying seconds Zac Bailey pinned Mark Blicavs with the ball adjacent to Brisbane's attacking goalsquare, but in what the AFL later deemed was an incorrect decision, it was called play-on and the Cats hung on by a point.
CATS v LIONS Full match coverage and stats
Western Bulldogs 14.16 (100) def West Coast 14.9 (93), R2
A pulsating match early in the season under the Marvel Stadium roof, this was a shootout right until the death. West Coast led by 14 points during the last quarter, and still had the lead with three minutes remaining, before the Dogs surged in a frenzied finish. Jack Macrae ended up with 40 disposals, but it was captain Marcus Bontempelli's three goals from 30 touches that stole the show.
DOGS v EAGLES Full match coverage and stats
Collingwood 11.6 (72) lost to Brisbane 11.7 (73), R3
Six days after Bailey was denied the chance of a match-winning goal against the Cats, he made good against Collingwood in one of the most memorable finishes of 2021. Brisbane was staring down the barrel of a 0-3 start after the Easter Thursday game was relocated from the Gabba to Marvel Stadium, but after taking a mark on the lead in the final seconds, Bailey calmly went back as the siren sounded and drilled his set shot from 50m to seal victory by one point.
PIES v LIONS Full match coverage and stats
Port Adelaide 11.13 (79) def Richmond 11.11 (77), R4
They finished as the walking wounded, but Port also left with the four premiership points from this Friday night ripper at Adelaide Oval. Zak Butters, Xavier Duursma, Connor Rozee, Orazio Fantasia and Tom Clurey all suffered injuries in the rematch of the 2020 preliminary final, and it was again left to Port's Mr Clutch, Robbie Gray, to put his team ahead with just four minutes remaining. The Tigers peppered Port's defence late, but to no avail.
POWER v TIGERS Full match coverage and stats
Hawthorn 15.12 (102) def Adelaide 16.3 (99), R6
Played early on a Sunday afternoon at Launceston's UTAS Stadium between two battling teams, this match quickly turned into an absolute ripper. With Riley Thilthorpe kicking five goals in a memorable debut, Adelaide kicked an incredible 15 straight goals before registering a behind. But he wasn't the only young forward turning heads that day, as Hawk Jacob Koschitzke kicked five goals of his own to help his team erase a 32-point third quarter deficit to storm home for an unlikely victory.
HAWKS v CROWS Full match coverage and stats
Sydney 14.6 (90) def Geelong 12.16 (88), R7
This match came down to the dying seconds, and unlike round two where the Cats got the rub of the green against Brisbane, this time they were on the wrong end of a controversial decision. After Tom Papley put the Swans up by two points with 90 seconds remaining after a clever left-footed snap, Geelong pressed hard to snatch victory. A quick kick from congestion was marked by Jeremy Cameron adjacent to the behind post, but the former Giant was denied a chance to be the match-winner after the umpire called 'play on', deeming the kick had not travelled 15m – a decision the AFL said was wrong the following day.
SWANS v CATS Full match coverage and stats
Adelaide 15.6 (96) def Melbourne 14.11 (95), R10
The underdog Crows sprung one of the biggest surprises of the season in beating the then unbeaten Demons – but it didn't come without controversy. After overturning a 16-point deficit late in the fourth quarter in front of a raucous home crowd, Adelaide was forced to cling on for dear life in the closing seconds. Young defender Nick Murray gathered a loose ball 15m in front the boundary line before handballing it out right next to the behind post. The crowd – and Crows – held their breath, but the umpire called for a throw-in rather than award a free kick for a deliberate out of bounds.
CROWS v DEMONS Full match coverage and stats
>> VOTE FOR THE BEST GAME OF 2021 IN THE POLL BELOW
North Melbourne 14.10 (94) drew Greater Western Sydney 14.10 (94), R13
The teams slugged out the first draw of the season, but the Giants would have walked away the happier outfit after trailing by 28 points in the last term. Forward Daniel Lloyd was both a hero and villain, kicking two goals in the comeback, but then missing the chance to snatch victory with a difficult shot that sailed wide and failed to score. Josh Kelly starred with 39 disposals, while the rapidly-improving Kangaroos were best served by Aaron Hall (35) and Jy Simpkin (31).
ROOS v GIANTS Full match coverage and stats
West Coast 13.7 (85) def Richmond 12.9 (81), R13
One of the best games in the young history of Optus Stadium, this contest will be remembered for the sliding mark and dead-eye match-winning goal of West Coast's champion forward Josh Kennedy. His perfectly executed set shot late in the game completed a sizzling comeback from the home team, climbing all the way back from 22 points down in the fourth quarter to claim victory. Kennedy kicked four goals on a memorable Sunday night to remind everyone he is one of the game's best forwards of the past decade.
EAGLES v TIGERS Full match coverage and stats
Geelong 12.11 (83) def Western Bulldogs 11.12 (78), R14
It doesn't get much better than Gary Rohan's after-the-siren goal – unless you're a Bulldogs supporter of course. Rohan was the hero in front of a COVID-reduced GMHBA Stadium crowd, but his calm set shot from 45m out in the left forward pocket will live long in the memories of Cats fans. It completed a terrific Friday night clash between two of the competition's heavyweights, full of drama and 13 lead changes. In the end, it will be remembered for one kick only.
CATS v DOGS Full match coverage and stats
Geelong 12.5 (77) lost to Melbourne 12.9 (81), R23
In what could well be seen as the catalyst to Melbourne's drought-breaking premiership five weeks later, Dees fans must still be wondering how they pulled off this robbery at GMHBA Stadium. Trailing by 44 points during the third quarter, it looked like the Cats would win and finish as minor premiers, but the visitors had other ideas, kicking six unanswered goals in a remarkable final term to storm to victory. Fittingly it was skipper Max Gawn who took them over the top, taking a towering pack mark at the top of the goalsquare and kicking truly after the siren to win his team both the match and the minor premiership.
CATS v DEMONS Full match coverage and stats
Sydney 10.13 (73) lost to Greater Western Sydney 11.8 (74), elimination final
The Sydney derby never disappoints, and this finals instalment lived up to the hype. Played on neutral territory in Launceston, Toby Greene was again the centre of attention, kicking three goals to lead his team to a healthy half-time lead, but also getting tangled up with an umpire in an incident that would later see him suspended for six weeks. The Giants led for most of the match and had to withstand all sorts of pressure from the Swans in the final quarter. However, despite having the majority of possession and territory, Sydney was unable to deliver the knockout blow, kicking six successive behinds as the Giants clung on for a thrilling win.
SWANS v GIANTS Full match coverage and stats
Brisbane 11.12 (78) lost to Western Bulldogs 11.13 (79), semi-final
In what will probably be remembered for Bailey Smith's 'ice in my veins' celebration, this semi-final ticked every box for drama. In front of a huge Gabba crowd, the Western Bulldogs overturned an 18-point deficit in the third quarter to set up a pulsating finish. Smith kicked his third goal, that sparked his celebration, with less than two minutes remaining to give the Dogs the lead, only to have things levelled seconds later by Zac Bailey who kicked truly on the run. It set up a dramatic final 60 seconds.
LIONS v DOGS Full match coverage and stats