AS summer started to turn to autumn, Port Adelaide captain Tom Jonas had all 17 of his AFL counterparts declare he would be leading his team to consecutive top-eight finals series.

Port Adelaide had rebuilt its standing in a highly competitive 18-team league.

The rival captains had Port Adelaide ranked third - behind defending champions Richmond and rising contender Brisbane - in the race for the 2021 AFL grand final.

Port Adelaide was on the edge ... and the captains were needing to be convinced on whether it would rise or slip while the AFL game returned to full-length games and a 22-game calendar amid the uncertainty of the COVID pandemic.

Springs looms. The kings from Punt Road at Richmond have fallen. And Port Adelaide has completed the home-and-away series ranked second, with the best win-loss record (17-5) for a 22-round home-and-away series since the breakthrough 2004 premiership season.

The club that boldy opened the year declaring it was "Chasing Greatness" has lived up to its own grand (and much-debated) expectations - and, against a demanding injury count during the second half of the qualifying series, overwhelmed those who expected Port Adelaide to fall short of a top-four ranking.

Port Adelaide starts the final series at No.2 - and with a repeat qualifying final against Geelong at Adelaide Oval on Friday night.

It is in extraordinary shape by selecting from a relatively healthy squad, it is building its finals campaign with momentum from being the best-performed AFL team since the mid-season break - and there is still improvement within the playing group. The best is still to come, be it with stronger starts to games, more goalscoring productivity and accuracy and/or in finding greater form from players on their comeback from injury.

This is Port Adelaide in 2021.

04:54 Mins
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Game Film: Round 23 | PTV

A memorable win that has us primed for a September assault.

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"We have had to really dig deep this year through a squad mentality. When we lost four games to the halfway mark of the season, people were jumping on us ...

"We are now looking at how we have lost just one game (since the break) and have got time into players who did not get many games last year. So the depth in our squad is greater and we have had to work hard to get to this position where we are now.

"We are in a far better place than where we were last year."

Port Adelaide midfield coach Jarrad Schofield

WIN-LOSS

Port Adelaide finished the home-and-away series finally delivering to the challenge posed throughout the second half of the qualifying season: Beat a top-four side. The Western Bulldogs started the last round of the home-and-away season in fourth spot and had been a top-two side for most of the season. 

So the challenge was met.

Port Adelaide finished with a 17-5 count (and with all the trimmings of top spot without the curse of the McClelland Trophy handed to minor premier Melbourne).

Port Adelaide's form after the mid-season bye was more remarkable considering the injuries carried through June and July - eight wins and two losses. It enters the final series with momentum built from a six-game winning streak to match the five-win finish from last season’s shortened home-and-away series. 

The significant note in the 17-5 win-loss record is the team's achievement in tight contests. Port Adelaide has won all six games decided by 13 points of less - Richmond (two points, round 4); Collingwood (one point, round 10); Sydney (10 points, round 15); St Kilda (13 points, round 18); Adelaide (four points, round 21) and Western Bulldogs (two points, round 23).

BEST WIN

So much to choose from ...

Remarkably, the game that was the toughest to watch - against Collingwood at the MCG in round 10 - leaves the greatest impression of what Port Adelaide has become this season: A team of resilience and persistence. It will find a way to win.

While this game still creates migraines in the re-watching, there is much to admire in how Port Adelaide overcame a bad start - one behind at quarter-time and just two goals at half-time - to find a way to beat Collingwood by one point.

By round 23, this resilience was the cornerstone of the two-point win against the Western Bulldogs at the Docklands.

"You've got to be able to hang in there sometimes and it’s as simple as that - we wouldn’t go away."

Port Adelaide senior coach Ken Hinkley

Ollie Wines' late snap against Collingwood in Round 10 would help Port Adelaide hold on for a resilient win away from home.

STAR PLAYERS 

OLLIE WINES

In line for his first All-Australian selection - having already been named in the squad of 40 - and perhaps more when the Brownlow Medal count is taken.

The Port Adelaide vice-captain rewrote his personal bests with a remarkable run of form during the mid-season, in particular with his career-best 43 touches against Gold Coast in round 14 and against Hawthorn in round 16.

The demand that every Port Adelaide player have at least two roles to play in the team has Wines work in the midfield and as a target who is tough to shift around the goalsquare.

TRAVIS BOAK

He is 33 ... and proves the game does not read your birth certificate if you are dedicated to your craft. The former captain became the second Port Adelaide player (after Kane Cornes) to play 300 AFL games for the club - and seems more and more determined to be remembered for far more than holding the AFL games record at Alberton.

ALIIR ALIIR

Came to Alberton during the trade period after 64 games at Sydney and - exactly as he wishes and Port Adelaide needed - has established himself as an impassible defender with an extraordinary ability to read the aerial ball for intercept marks. The Showdown Medal from the second derby should not be Aliir's lone personal accolade in 2021.

Aliir Aliir has become a crucial piece of Port Adelaide's puzzle after crossing to Alberton from Sydney during the trade period.

KARL AMON

A game-breaking wingman who can do damage inside the contest - this is a strong theme for a player who just three years ago thought it was not going to happen for him at Port Adelaide.

TRENT McKENZIE

Kept out of the side by hamstring concerns and the form of key defender Tom Clurey, the return of Trent McKenzie as a tight-checking full back during the second half of the season is the highlight of men stepping up to opportunity.

WILLEM DREW

Port Adelaide's success - and future - will hinge on having more and more in the midfield. Here, 22-year-old Willem Drew has answered the call as a midfielder who steps up to big challenges against the opposition's trump cards - as noted on Friday night against the Western Bulldogs spark Tom Liberatore.

The 33rd call at the 2016 AFL national draft, Drew has - after a shaky apprenticeship cursed by injury - won the battle of persistence with his full count of 22 games this season.

RISING STAR

MILES BERGMAN

In a year in which Port Adelaide emphasised flexibility, teenager Miles Bergman did excel - in defence, in attack and now in the midfield. His ability to get to marking contests and defy opponents with a deft touch at the last millisecond needs to be appreciated more.

CLUTCH PLAYER

ROBBIE GRAY

Just how much ice does run through the veins of Robbie Gray for him to repeatedly nail winning goals? Carlton at the Gabba last year appears to have been just a warm-up act for this year's encore, including the winner against the Western Bulldogs on Friday night. 

00:58 Mins
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Mark of the Week: Round 23 | PTV

Robbie Gray takes a crucial mark to then slot the winning goal.

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X FILES

For the unexpected: At a time when Port Adelaide was being repeatedly questioned for working three tall forwards - All-Australian Charlie Dixon, Rising Star Mitch Georgiades and Todd Marshall - necessity (by injuries to smaller forwards) forced a fourth tall to be introduced with ruckman Peter Ladhams. And it worked!

"Pete kicked three goals (in round 20 against Greater Western Sydney) so he should be seen as a forward. But when he goes into the ruck he has an impact as well. 

"I love playing with Pete and I think we are a better team when we both are in the team. It is a lot harder for other teams to scout us - you have two guys going into the ruck and not a drop-off going in there."

Lead ruckman Scott Lycett

THE DRUM

Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley worked through disappointment in the first half of the home-and-away season noting his team was "good" but not yet "great".

Port Adelaide has built significant momentum and greater strength while overcoming the challenges of injury during the second half of the qualifying series.

Now it is at the crossroads to chasing greatness.

BY THE NUMBERS

Ranking: 2

Players used: 35

First-year players: 5 (Miles Bergman, Martin Frederick, Lachie Jones, Jed McEntee, Dylan Williams)

Average score: 86 points

Average conceded: 68 points

Games won: 17 of 22

Quarters won: 52 of 88

Rising Star nominees: Mitch Georgiades (Round 5), Miles Bergman (Round 21)

Leading goalkicker: Charlie Dixon (46 goals)