Week one of the finals is upon us, with Collingwood vs Melbourne set to kick it all off on Thursday night in what is a massive match for both sides and their premiership hopes. Both are arguably the leading favourites for the flag with the game set to be one of the matches of the year with an expected crowd of 94,000 watching on.
Then we head to Carlton vs Sydney on Friday night in what is expected to be adverse conditions, with heavy rain and hail on the forecast. It marks Carlton's return to the finals for the first time in 10 years, with only a handful of players in their best 22 having any sort of previous finals experience - with Adam Saad, Mitch McGovern, George Hewett and Nic Newman included. Meanwhile, Sydney is stacked with finals experience, having played in four grand finals over the last 10 years and will play their eleventh finals series in 13 years under John Longmire.
St Kilda vs GWS will be a bit of a wildcard game, with GWS scraping into the finals at the death and not many expecting St Kilda to make the eight. St Kilda will be relying on their defensive style of play, whilst GWS' unpredictability will make for an interesting matchup.
Finally, we head to the Gabba on Saturday night where Brisbane will host Port Adelaide for the second Qualifying Final. Many believe that Brisbane will lock in a home preliminary final and their ticket to the grand final in this game, but watch out for Port Adelaide, who won't hold any fears playing at the Gabba. Last time the teams faced off back in Round 1, Port Adelaide had a comfortable win over the Lions and will be using that as a boost heading into the contest.
We've named one player from every top eight team to watch out for this weekend.
First Qualifying Final
Collingwood: Brayden Maynard
After captaining the side in Rounds 23 and 24, Brayden Maynard is in prime form heading into the finals. Maynard's two games as captain rank statistically in his top five games for the year - having 20 disposals, six marks, and five tackles against Brisbane, while he had 21 disposals, seven marks and six tackles against Essendon, in what were both consistent efforts.
With the rivalry between Melbourne and Collingwood heating up over the last year, ignited by Ed Langdon's infamous 'all duck, no dinner' comments, Maynard has been involved in some fiery on-field moments including the first tackle on Langdon after those comments and a big bump on Alex Neal-Bullen. Given what's at stake on Thursday night, Maynard will undoubtedly find himself in some tense exchanges with a few Melbourne players.
The last time the two sides played each other in Round 13 it was one of Maynard's best games for the year with 25 disposals, eight marks, and four tackles. Maynard consistently performs in every game against the Demons and Thursday night will be no different. Expect a big performance from him.
Melbourne: Trent Rivers
After what was a pretty average 2022 season, Rivers has enjoyed a breakout year, averaging 20.3 disposals and 2.3 tackles a game to be ranked above average in both categories, rewarded with a four-year contract extension which will see him at the Demons until at least the end of 2027.
Rivers will have his hands full on Thursday night across half-back, dealing with Collingwood's small forwards in Jamie Elliott, Bobby Hill, and Jack Ginnivan once subbed in, but the effort that Rivers has put in across the season will hold him in good stead.
Last time he played Collingwood, Rivers had 23 disposals, six marks and a game-high nine intercept possessions, his performance helping to keep Collingwood to just nine goals for the game and limit their small forwards' impact.
First Elimination Final
Carlton: Nic Newman
Nic Newman is one of the only several Carlton players to have featured in a final before and will be crucial in ensuring a finals win, made even sweeter given he is playing his old club Sydney. The Best Clubman recipient will be putting everything on the line on Friday night, with Carlton looking for their first finals win since the 2013 Elimination Final.
Newman has been a consistent performer for Carlton over the last three years, with this year in particular being a standout year, averaging 23.1 disposals, 7.8 marks, 3.6 tackles and 98 AFL fantasy points. The defender will have to manage Sydney's unpredictable forward line on Saturday, with Hayden McLean in strong form, having kicked nine goals over the last four weeks, whilst Isaac Heeney has provided another avenue up forward in recent weeks and Tom Papley is expected to return from injury.
Last time Newman played his old side he sustained a hamstring injury, however they appear to be a side he regularly plays well against. In Round 10, 2022, Newman had 23 disposals, six marks and two tackles for the game.
Sydney: Dane Rampe
Dane Rampe has had an up-and-down season with an injury, however, his last four weeks of the home and away season have been particularly lacklustre and not the form he would've hoped to be in heading into a finals campaign.
One of the stronger players in Sydney's shock grand final loss last year, Rampe will be looking to avenge those demons on Friday night against Carlton. Rampe will lead an undersized defence against twin towers Harry McKay and Charlie Curnow, whilst they'll also have to manage the likes of Jesse Motlop, Jack Silvagni, and Jack Martin.
Against Melbourne in Round 24, Sydney's defence held up well for the first three quarters and faded in the final quarter, allowing Melbourne to kick four goals, and Bayley Fritsch five goals in his return, and win the game. Melbourne were able to score off the back of 34 forward half intercepts, something which Rampe will want to correct against Carlton, particularly if Curnow and McKay are both accurate on Friday night.
Last time Sydney played Carlton, McKay and Curnow were both inaccurate yet had five shots on goal each. Rampe must curb their influence if the Swans are to progress to a semi-final.
Second Elimination Final
St Kilda: Mitch Owens
Mitch Owens has thrived under Ross Lyon in just his second season at AFL level, earning himself a Round 4 Rising Star nomination and was statistically the best teenager in the league after Round 6. Owens looms as a player who could bring the X-Factor on the weekend against GWS, particularly against their midfield with the likes of Stephen Coniglio, Tom Green, Josh Kelly, and Callan Ward.
Owens has been averaging 15.2 disposals and 3.7 tackles a game, bringing strong forward half-pressure and converting this into goals, having kicked 25.15 for the season. Inaccurate early in the season, Owens appears to have rectified this issue, kicking 4.0 in Round 16 against West Coast, and hasn't kicked multiple behinds in a game since Round 13.
Last time St Kilda played the Giants, Owens entered concussion protocols after a nasty head knock which saw him stretchered off halfway through the second quarter. Prior to that, he hadn't played GWS, so it'll be intriguing to see how he lines up against them.
GWS: Toby Greene
It's been a whirlwind fortnight for GWS captain Toby Greene, leading his side into the finals with an inspirational four-goal performance against Carlton, going on to be named the All-Australian captain just days later in what has been a huge turnaround from often finding himself in trouble with the AFL's MRO.
Greene looms as the most important player on the ground on Saturday afternoon and has the ability to turn the game on its head, having kicked 60 goals for the season and bags of four goals or more seven times this year. His statistics this season rank as elite in almost every category for a forward, averaging 17.9 disposals, 12 kicks, 4.5 marks, 2.9 goals and 88.5 AFL fantasy points per game.
Greene will be a tough man to stop, particularly as one of the more experienced finals players on the ground, and will be leading from the front for his first and second-year players who have not experienced the finals atmosphere before.
Second Qualifying Final
Brisbane: Charlie Cameron
Charlie Cameron will step out for his 200th game on Saturday night at the Gabba, with the seasoned September specialist expected to play his best footy like he does every year come finals. Cameron has kicked 34 goals across his 16 finals, including 23 in nine finals at Brisbane. Last finals series, Cameron managed seven goals and was an influential part of Brisbane's ability to beat their MCG hoodoo against Melbourne.
Cameron hit a slight form slump after a brutal collision with Trent Cotchin in Round 16 which saw him without his two front teeth, going goalless the following week against West Coast. However, his last two weeks have got him primed for finals footy once again, kicking four goals against Collingwood in Round 23 and another two against St Kilda in Round 24.
Port Adelaide held Cameron goalless in Round 1 in what was statistically his second-worst game of the season, but it is no indication of how he will play on Saturday night. Expect a few goals and the sounds of "Take Me Home, Country Roads" to echo around the Gabba for Charlie on Saturday night.
Port Adelaide: Jason Horne-Francis
Since crossing from North Melbourne to Port Adelaide, Horne-Francis has shown what made him the No.1 pick in the 2021 Draft, performing consistently since he moved home. However, his form heading into finals has not been indicative of how he's performed this season.
Against Fremantle in Round 23, Horne-Francis had 14 disposals, two marks and a goal. The following week against Richmond, he had 13 disposals, three marks and two tackles.
However, it was his Round 1 performance against Brisbane which showed everyone what he was capable of with 25 disposals, seven clearances and a goal in his first game for Port Adelaide to be named one of their best. It will be interesting to see how he lines up for his first final.