The Dockers stifle a star Swans duo, the Bombers battle to avoid history repeating and the Lions’ flag pathway begins to open.

Friday: ‘We feel like we’re building’: Demons find positives in heartbreaking loss to Lions

Saturday: ‘A series of unfortunate events’: Bombers glumly reflect on second-half collapse in loss to Cats

Sunday: Captain Cripps helps Carlton cruise to victory as Hawks, Power get vital wins

Here are the biggest talking points from every game of round 16.

1. Lions top-four plans coming together after vital win over Dees

If there is a hypothetical pathway to a flag for every AFL team, the one for the Brisbane Lions always starts with the same dot point — make the top four.

Hugh McCluggage’s ice-cold finish at the Gabba gave the Lions the win they craved to crack the top eight and close in on the top four.(Getty Images: AFL Photos/Chris Hyde)

It’s no guarantee of premiership success — just look at last season — but without the double chance it’s a very steep hill for Brisbane and other non-Victorian teams to climb.

For most of this season, that goal has appeared lost and out of sight. But after the heart-pumping, last-minute win over the Demons at the Gabba, it may be coming into view again.

It was a frustrating game in many ways, with the Lions nearly kicking themselves out of it with a return of 11.20.

A trio of Lions key midfielders received a bake from coach Chris Fagan at half-time, and their second-half improvement went a long way towards getting the team over the line, with Hugh McCluggage’s ice-cold kick from deep in the pocket sealing victory.

These are the games they have to win if they are to make it to their goal.

Brisbane is now in the eight, one game out of the top four, and it has a better percentage than every other team in the eight except Sydney.

From here, the two big games are Sydney at the Gabba in three weeks’ time, and Collingwood at the MCG in round 23.

If they can win both of those, then there is no ceiling on where the Lions may end up.

ABC player of the year votes:

3. Kysaiah Pickett (Melbourne)

2. Josh Dunkley (Brisbane)

1. Lachie Neale (Brisbane)

(Votes are compiled by the ABC Sport radio commentary team after each match)

2. Did Dockers’ shutdown of Gulden and Heeney show the AFL how to beat the Swans?

Not many people saw it coming, but the Fremantle Dockers were the ones to put a stop to the Sydney Swans’ seemingly unstoppable winning run.

Freo came to the SCG, no less, and beat the flag favourites on their home ground — the fact they did it by a single point is neither here nor there.

Errol Gulden (right) was held to 21 disposals, no goals and three inside 50s in Sydney’s loss to Fremantle.(Getty Images: AFL Photos/Matt King)

While there may be a number of reasons for the win, a big factor was the visitors’ midfield strength, and part of that can be put down to their success against the star Swan duo of Errol Gulden and Isaac Heeney. 

Nat Fyfe produced a brilliant defensive display, gathering 23 disposals himself and keeping Heeney to six touches to half-time (20 in total).

The Dockers also kept Errol Gulden quiet, albeit without a tag — he did not make a big impact until the latter stages of the game.

A quick look at the stats shows that up to round 15 — including the 10 games of the winning run — Gulden and Heeney were averaging a combined two goals, 10 clearances, 54 disposals, and nearly 17 inside 50s a game.

Against the Dockers, they managed a total of zero goals, 41 touches and seven inside 50s.

You may not be able to shut the pair down every week — in fact keeping one of them quiet is a task in itself. But Freo showed that if you can negate the Errol and Isaac show, you can go a long way to beating the Swans.

ABC player of the year votes:

3. Luke Ryan (Fremantle)

2. Jeremy Sharp (Fremantle)

1. Nick Blakey (Sydney)

3. Lobb move to defence could be key to Bulldogs’ fight for finals

What to do with Rory Lobb has been a puzzle for more than one team in the AFL over the years,

He has size, a good leap and an ability to kick goals — although not as many as fans and clubs would have hoped for.

Lobb has been played in various roles with varying success, and this season — his 11th overall and second for the Bulldogs — it has appeared as if he might be headed for another move.

Rory Lobb was an excellent addition to the Bulldogs’ backline against the Kangaroos, and he may prove vital in the team’s challenge for the finals.  (Getty Images: Daniel Pockett)

But with coach Luke Beveridge desperate for a replacement for the injured Alex Keath and Ryan Gardner, he threw Lobb down back and Lobb responded with five intercept marks, 12 intercept possessions and four score involvements against the Kangaroos.

He was far from the only reason for his team’s 17-point win but he was certainly a contributing factor. The Bulldogs’ official injury list has Keath four to six weeks away from a return, while Gardner’s wrist injury is a 10-12 week estimate.

Given the Dogs will face Port Adelaide, Carlton, Geelong, Sydney and Melbourne in the next five weeks, having someone who can give Liam Jones a chop-out down back will be a big boost to their chances of staying in the cut-throat competition for places in the top eight.   

ABC player of the year votes:

3. Liam Jones (Western Bulldogs)

2. Marcus Bontempelli (Western Bulldogs)

1. Tristan Xerri (North Melbourne)

4. Home-loving Suns still the Jekyll and Hyde of the AFL

It’s been a familiar refrain for the Suns in 2024, as their lack of consistency has hampered their campaign for a first-ever finals spot.

The big positive from this season has of course been their record at home. Before this weekend Gold Coast had played five games at Carrara in 2024, and they’d won all five by an average margin of 29 points.

The Suns also won their two “home” games in Darwin by an average of 66 points. But they had lost every single game away from home.

So they entered the contest against the defending premiers Collingwood — who they had only beaten once in the last 10 outings — desperately needing a win to stay in contact with the top eight after a disappointing loss to Fremantle last week.

Lucky for Damien Hardwick and his men, it was the home version of the team that turned up. The midfield, so poor against the Dockers, stood up against the Pies, with Noah Anderson, Sam Flanders and Touk Miller in particular all excellent.

The return of Ben King had an impact as the spearhead kicked four, but it was a team effort. And the guts the Suns showed to come back after being run down by the Magpies in the final term cannot be underestimated.

The fact remains, however — until Gold Coast can produce on the road, they’re not going to be making finals. Can they build on this win? We’ll see.  

ABC player of the year votes:

3. Noah Anderson (Gold Coast)

2. Nick Daicos (Collingwood)

1. Sam Flanders (Gold Coast)

5. Cats cast doubt on Bombers’ legitimacy with dominant win

Last week the Bombers came back from their bye and took care of the Eagles.

On Saturday night they came out against Geelong with a point to prove and a statement to make — but they left with a 45-point defeat and more questions than answers.

This game could — and perhaps should — have been the springboard towards a crack at the top two.

But this result reminds us which teams the Bombers have beaten in 2024 — and which ones they haven’t.

Hawthorn, St Kilda, Western Bulldogs, Adelaide, GWS, North Melbourne, Richmond, West Coast (twice) have been the victories so far, with most of those opponents not in form when the wins came.

The losses? Sydney, Port Adelaide, Gold Coast, Carlton and now Geelong. The Bombers have lost to the three genuine flag contenders in that list by four goals plus. And even though the Cats had lost six from seven, a win over them would have boosted confidence.

But being swept aside with 10 goals to two after half-time is not a good sign. They are still in the top four, but the big loss also leaves them with a percentage of 99.9, which is not good enough to win a tie-breaker against anyone.

There is also the unavoidable comparison with last year, where the Bombers started 8-3, but finished the year 11-12.

If they want to convince people that history is not repeating, they have to start with a big performance in Friday night’s clash with Collingwood at the MCG.  

ABC player of the year votes:

3. Oliver Dempsey (Geelong)

2. Jack Bowes (Geelong)

1. Jye Caldwell (Essendon)

6. Rankine sparks Crows revival — but can they do it again? 

There’s no arguing the fact that this has been a rough season for the Adelaide Crows and everyone connected with the club.

The clear progression — after last season being an umpiring error away from a final round win and a finals spot — was making the top eight in 2024.

That won’t happen this year, after a disappointing run of results left the Crows languishing in 14th spot with the pressure right on everyone from the players to coach Matthew Nicks to the team’s administration.

But on Saturday night at Adelaide Oval; the Crows came up against a GWS side that is still right in the hunt for September football — and they beat them by more than the final 16-point margin might suggest.

One of the reasons was the brilliance of Izak Rankine, who dominated the game in the pivotal second quarter where the Crows kicked seven goals to one. Rankine kicked two of those seven goals, and simply stood out as the home side kicked clear.

He ended the night with 27 disposals, 14 contested, nine score involvements, eight inside 50s and six clearances plus 591 metres gained. It’s the kind of irresistible game you know he can have.

He wasn’t on his own, with Ben Keays, Darcy Fogarty, Josh Rachele, Taylor Walker and Mitch Hinge in defence all having strong nights. This was Adelaide’s second-best win of the season along with the squeaker over Carlton.

But is this a one-off, or the start of something?   

ABC player of the year votes:

3. Izak Rankine (Adelaide)

2. Mitchell Hinge (Adelaide)

1. Tom Green (GWS)

7. Big win for Hinkley and Power, but much more needed

Every win gets you the same four premiership points, but in footy some wins mean more than others.

Just look at Port Adelaide and their coach Ken Hinkley after their two-point victory over St Kilda at Docklands.

It may have only been a two-point margin at Docklands, but for Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley and his players, it might as well have been 100.(Getty Images: Quinn Rooney)

After a week that started with his own team’s fans booing him, Hinkley rode the emotions of a tight game with the Saints that was never safe until the final seconds and ended with a win that could mean everything.

“We’re two points from the top four, it felt like [this week] we’re bottom of the ladder,” Hinkley told Fox Footy after the game.

“And I get why — we really appreciate we haven’t been playing well, but we’re doing our best to get it right.”

This is the reality of life in a two-team town, where there is no other story, particularly when your team isn’t travelling so well.

On Sunday the Power showed what they can do when their leaders perform — Zak Butters, Jason Horne-Francis and Connor Rozee all had big games — and they got the job done despite regularly failing to take their chances.

Despite Hinkley’s comments about their closeness to the top four, he knows something else, however — the Power has a worse percentage than each of the three teams sitting in ninth, 10th and 11th (the Bulldogs, the Giants and the Suns).

So this victory means a lot, but they must keep winning or the pressure will rise even higher.

ABC player of the year votes:

3. Jason Horne-Francis (Port Adelaide)

2. Connor Rozee (Port Adelaide)

1. Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera (St Kilda)

8. Classic Cripps taking Carlton to the next level

If you want to make a real tilt at an AFL flag, it helps if you have your skipper firing on all cylinders. 

The last fortnight out of the bye, Carlton’s Patrick Cripps has returned to the field with a vengeance. 

He has been in great form for most of the season, but these two games feel like a next level.

Against the Tigers — who admittedly are 17th on the ladder for a reason — Cripps helped break the game open, driving his team’s third-quarter effort that produced seven goals to one and put the game away.

The skipper ended with 40 disposals, 14 clearances, nine inside 50s, and eight score involvements.

Combining with Sam Walsh, Cripps made the Blues midfield a fearsome thing.

To this point in 2024, Cripps is number one in contested possessions, number one in centre clearances, number two in handballs, number three in overall clearances, equal fifth in stoppage clearances, and top 20 in tackles, effective disposals and score involvements.

If he can stay fit and firing the rest of this season, the likelihood will grow that Carlton is headed for a deep run in September.

ABC Sport player of the year votes:

3. Patrick Cripps (Carlton)

2. Sam Walsh (Carlton)

1.Nic Newman (Carlton)

9. Woeful Eagles can’t afford repeat of Hawks performance

There were three places on the ladder between West Coast and Hawthorn before their meeting at Perth Stadium.

The Eagles injury list did not help matters, but the team’s lack of competitiveness at home against Hawthorn was worrying.(AAP: Richard Wainwright)

When the siren sounded the respective places stayed the same, but no one who watched would say that’s a fair expression of the distance between the two sides.

Sam Mitchell’s Hawthorn side are on the way up, and they are still a chance of making the eight.

But the Eagles’ level of effort in front of their home fans was very worrying, and a bit of an unwanted throwback to the bad old days of a couple of years ago. 

Nearly 150 fewer possessions, barely half the inside 50s, four centre clearances to Hawthorn’s 14, and most damningly, four marks inside 50 compared to 22 for the visitors.

Hawthorn moved the ball at will, repeatedly, on occassions walking through the West Coast defence.

The Eagles can thank Jeremy McGovern and Tom Barrass for keeping the margin from reaching three figures.

This might be an aberration, and we know that West Coast has got some special young talent, but they can’t afford to have many more days like that.

ABC Sport player of the year votes:

3. Jai Newcombe (Hawthorn)

2. James Worpel (Hawthorn)

1.Dylan Moore (Hawthorn)

ABC Sport player of the year top 10 not available this week.

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