COLLINGWOOD is in the eight after 13 rounds after winning a fourth straight game, but Magpies coach Craig McRae says the club won't start talking about finals just yet despite reaching the bye at 8-5.
The Magpies won only six games across a tumultuous 2021 that saw Nathan Buckley depart the club after nearly a decade as senior coach, before a 17th-placed finish led to a major cleanout of the football department.
After upsetting Fremantle in wet conditions at Optus Stadium in round 10, Collingwood has beaten Carlton and Hawthorn in thrilling finishes at the MCG, before adding the reigning premiers Melbourne to its list of scalps under the new regime.
"We don't really talk about winning too often either. We talk about winning habits, but we don't really talk about winning too often," McRae said after the 26-point win on Queen's Birthday.
"We are seeing that our best can be really competitive. But we are growing as well week to week. I can see our players growing and believing in what we do. Belief can be really powerful which can be a motivator.
"I just wrote on the board about acting like winners. We get a bit of a break. We've had 13 weeks of footy. This game is pretty hard. We get a chance to take a breath; a bit of comma if you like on our season and reset ourselves. We have no idea where we sit in the big scheme of things – we still don't – it's a pretty long season, but we get a breath now."
When Collingwood returns from a four-day break, the Magpies will be in a strong position to entrench themselves in the top eight with their next six opponents – Greater Western Sydney, Gold Coast, North Melbourne, Adelaide, Essendon and Port Adelaide – all currently outside the eight.
MAGPIES v DEMONS Full match coverage and stats
For the second time in three games, Mason Cox produced one of the finest performances of his career to continue his resurgence after his opportunities looked numbered earlier in the season.
McRae was thrilled by the American's second-half effort that saw him finish with a career-high 21 disposals, nine hitouts, eight marks and a goal.
"I must admit, I'm really proud of him. I told him I'm really proud of him. There is no secret we go way back. To see him grow as well, he has a lot of doubters, but he showed he can play at the level," he said.
"He is confident at his best. You can see him grow, he just gets taller and taller. He had a couple of chances in the first quarter that he didn't quite take – they were half-chances – he has been really important for us in the last month."
Cox could cause McRae and the match committee inside the AIA Centre some headaches later in the season when dual All-Australian ruckman Brodie Grundy returns from a PCL injury.
Key forward Brody Mihocek produced another vintage performance following a week where he didn't train and was no guarantee to get up for the game, after suffering bone bruising in his knee in the four-point win over Hawthorn last Sunday.
McRae lauded the 29-year-old after he not only got to the starting line, but kicked an equal personal-best four goals – the 12th time he has kicked four goals in his 91-game career – from 16 disposals and 10 marks in a dominant display inside 50.
"Jeez, I was nervous when I thought he wasn't going to play. We just don't have the depth in that position to bring someone else in to play that role," he said.
"It's a sign of who he is. He was 50/50 for most of the week. Then he comes out and he is really sore – I'm not going to lie, he is really sore – and then performs. It is one thing to play injured, it's another to actually play well injured. It's a sign of his character."
After winning 17 games in a row – including last year's Grand Final that ended a 57-year premiership drought – Melbourne has now lost three games on the bounce, with Monday's loss following defeats against Fremantle and Sydney.
The Demons were in the spotlight for most of the past six days after Steven May was suspended by the club for an incident at a restaurant which left teammate Jake Melksham requiring two rounds of the surgery to repair his hand.
Coach Simon Goodwin conceded it was a challenging week for the club but said the controversial incident wasn't the reason why the Demons faded out of the clash, conceding seven of the final eight goals after leading by 20 points in the third quarter.
"It is (a challenging period for the club), but it is one that we will embrace. We look at all those situations as opportunities. Yes, it was a big week for our footy club. We would have loved to have walked away from here with a victory and changed the week that was but the case is we didn't," Goodwin said.
"We played with heart, we played with spirit, we had a group of players that wanted to do well for our footy club and our method wasn't quite at the level. That's AFL footy.
"It was a big week. I don't think the week had an effect on the players in terms of their energy. I think they played with heart and spirit, they just didn't get the result."
Melbourne will be without debutant Daniel Turner for next Thursday night's clash against premiership contenders Brisbane after he suffered a concussion, while captain Max Gawn battled through the game with a sore foot.