AT best, Port Adelaide claims the AFL minor premiership - and its fourth McClelland Trophy - with a 14-3 win-loss record.
At worst, it will be 12-5 and a fall to fifth.
At this point, with 15 games packed away, Port Adelaide is only guaranteed a top-eight finals berth (for the first time since 2017). A top-four ranking (the club's first since 2007) and the minor premiership (to add to those won as a triple treat from 2002-2004) are still to be secured.
It is that tight with five teams - Port Adelaide, Brisbane, 2019 champion Richmond, Geelong and West Coast - in the frame for top-four finishes ... and the invaluable double chance in the first week of the finals series.
Port Adelaide finishes its home-and-away campaign with would-be finalists Essendon at Adelaide Oval on Saturday and Collingwood at a venue and in a timeslot still to be confirmed in round 18 a week later.
The prospect of Port Adelaide leading the race from start in mid-March to the end of this truncated home-and-away remains real. So does the reward of starting the top-eight final series at home at Adelaide Oval. But the challenge also remains to be completed, making for a pressure-loaded run to the pre-finals bye.
The body of work already put together by Port Adelaide this season - the one that has demanded much more than usual of AFL teams during the COVID pandemic - carries some significant notes:
HIGH scoring, with a 70-point average in shortened games of 16-minute quarters during a season when many have lamented low goal counts in many matches,
STRONG defence - from an unheralded group led by team captain Tom Jonas; anchored on the work of the much-improved Trent McKenzie and thriving on rebound with the bold plays of Darcy Bryne-Jones.
CONTINUED development of young-end talent, in particular the indestructible Zak Butters; and the rise as mature performers from players approaching their "prime" moments, such as wingman Karl Amon and midfielder Sam Powell-Pepper, who is making something of that challenging half-forward role in which he defends and attacks.
NO issue in responding after defeat. Port Adelaide this season is without consecutive losses. This has never before unfolded in an AFL season for Port Adelaide - not even during the grand rise from AFL newcomers to the breakthrough national league premiership in 2004.
Port Adelaide is keeping top spot for the 25th consecutive week on the back of the 36-point win against a fired-up North Melbourne on Saturday night on the moonlit Gold Coast. But the challenge to stay top remains intense with the upcoming clashes against Essendon and Collingwood, matches that serve as invaluable lead-ins (rather than "soft" run-up) to the finals.
The sour note of Saturday night is yet another injury - the third this year - to defender Ryan Burton, who went to the bench during the first term by way of his troublesome quadriceps muscle.
Again, senior coach Ken Hinkley has emphasised he is working a squad rather than a conventional, settled 22. This concept, well known to European football teams compelled to play as many as three games in any week, was forced by the compressed AFL fixture. The spin-off during the finals is a deep-running squad, rather than a locked-in team, that is better insulated to deal with injury or form lapses with there is no margin for error.
Port Adelaide 11.12 (78) d North Melbourne 6.6 (42)
ZAK Butters (Port Adelaide) v Todd Goldstein (North Melbourne).
Teenager (who turns 20 on Tuesday) v 32-year-old veteran.
The kid is 181 centimetres tall; the ruckman reaches 201.
On the scales, Butters just gets to 71 kilograms; Goldstein is at 102.
Quite a mismatch on every count. But during the third term, under a full moon on the Gold Coast on Saturday night, it was a symbolic duel. Butters won, tackling the bigger, heavier and more-experienced Goldstein to claim a holding-the-ball free kick.
Symbolic this moment was in that it captured the image of a Port Adelaide team working hard to rid itself of that gorilla that hopped on the players' collective back 13 months ago. At the Docklands in August last year, North Melbourne dragged Port Adelaide out of the top eight with an 86-point belting - and doomed Ken Hinkley's crew to carry the "also ran" tag again.
This decisive third term began with those moments that put a knot in any coach's stomach (and torment fans). Turnovers at the North Melbourne goalfront - first by recalled midfielder-forward Steven Motlop and then in-form defender Trent McKenzie - set up back-to-back goalscoring opportunities for Nick Larkey and North Melbourne captain Jack Ziebell at the fourth and seventh minutes.
Larkey cut the margin to 15 points with his goal; Ziebell missed, denying North Melbourne - that was achieving the unusual count of more inside-50s than Port Adelaide - the chance to put the margin at a single figure.
Be it just the nightmarish memories from August last year finding more relevance in the players' guts or not, the reaction was as powerful as Butters' gripping tackle on Goldstein: Five goals in 13 minutes - the last four in just seven minutes - and an uneasy 14-point margin became reassuring 46.
And critically, every major key performance indicator - hit-outs, centre clearances and all stoppages - were in Port Adelaide's favour.
This game did work to a most-predictable script with the North Melbourne players doing exactly as expected to answer the challenges posed by coach Rhyce Shaw after he had (yet again) labelled their previous result (a 63-loss to Gold Coast) as unacceptable.
North Melbourne's start was assertive. Its second term was enough to bring into question why Port Adelaide's clutch has been so sticky in the past three games.
At the end, Port Adelaide's 36-point win - that was set up with a four-goal blitz in the first term and the five-goal rush in the third - carried ticks in critical boxes. Again it was not perfect, but there is a strong base on which to build a winning game - a significant step forward for Port Adelaide.
LEAD ruckman Scott Lycett beat Goldstein 27-23 on hit-outs and 12-9 on disposals.
CONTESTED disposal was in Port Adelaide's favour, 119-109 - and this figure meant more than usual because of the "red-hot crack" theme Shaw demanded from his North Melbourne players.
CLEARANCES, particularly at the centre circle (15-3), were won 38-23 (23-20 at stoppage) by a Port Adelaide midfield that thrived on the solid work of vice-captain Ollie Wines (30 disposals), former captain Travis Boak (game-high 34) and Tom Rockliff (30).
SCORING was not solely invested in key forward Charlie Dixon, who kicked two of the team's 11 goals - with the second, in the opening forward play of the third quarter, a stunning kick from the boundary on the ground that was Dixon's first AFL home ground. There were nine goalscorers - Dixon, Wines 2; Butters, Motlop, Karl Amon, Robbie Gray, Connor Rozee, Boak and Sam Powell-Pepper.
DEFENCE held firm again with Darcy Bryne-Jones advancing his All-Australian claims with perfect reading of the play to shutdown opposition sorties - and adventurous forward thrusts that set up goalscoring chances for Ryan Burton and Amon in the first term.
A year after the nightmare collapse to North Melbourne, this result keeps vibrant the dream of being top from start to finish of the 17-game home-and-away series ... and keeps real Ken Hinkley's pre-season vow to chase the premiership and not just a top-eight finals appearance.
QUOTES OF THE GAME
"Conditions (with the dew creating a slippery deck and ball) did not allow us to play our ideal game."
Port Adelaide vice-captain Ollie Wines
"We're building a brand of football that stands up under pressure."
Port Adelaide midfielder and former captain Travis Boak
"They are not doing much wrong; every aspect of their game is looking good - ticking every box, Port Adelaide."
Former Richmond key forward Matthew Richardson
"They (Port Adelaide) were exceptional in their centre-bounce set ups and the way they moved the ball forward. They were very clean. And they worked hard forward. They are a very classy, very slick unit."
North Melbourne coach Rhyce Shaw
Port Adelaide v Essendon
Saturday, September 12. 4.35pm (SA time)
IT could be Port Adelaide's last home game at Adelaide Oval before the top-eight final series. And it brings forward an Essendon team needing to win to stay in contention for a top-eight finish.
There also will be a great test of the Port Adelaide midfield in protecting the defence that is expected to confront a rested and confident Joe Daniher, who has fond memories of his comeback match against Hawthorn at Adelaide Oval last month.
Inexperienced Port Adelaide ruckman Peter Ladhams is free of his AFL-imposed penalty for breaching COVID protocols. The two-ruck model is put up for debate yet again - and throws up the question of how Port Adelaide structures its attack with two ruckmen in the line-up and what becomes of veteran utility Justin Westhoff.
It will be just the fourth Port Adelaide-Essendon AFL game at Adelaide Oval where the record is 2-1 in Essendon's favour.
Port Adelaide will close the truncated, 17-game home-and-away series against Collingwood at a time and venue to be confirmed by the AFL.
Port Adelaide will - COVID updates permitting - play all finals (except the grand final) in which it is the higher-ranked team at Adelaide Oval with capacity ultimately set for 25,000.
TAKE IT TO THE BANK
(five things we learned in the past week)
1) NATIONAL GAME. Since 1897, with the formation of the Victorian Football League, the VFL-AFL grand finals have been played at the MCG, the East Melbourne Cricket Ground, Princes Park at Carlton, the Lake Oval at Albert Park, South Melbourne and VFL/AFL Park at Waverley. Now the 'Gabba becomes the first non-Victorian venue to host the biggest game of all - and it will be the first grand final not played in the traditional Saturday afternoon It might be the moment that leads to a national agenda for the Australian game's most-watched match of the season.
2) LIST MANAGEMENT. When Hawthorn premiership coach Alastair Clarkson speaks, it pays to listen ... because key decision makers in the game inevitably react (as noted with the holding-the-ball rule and interpretations this season). Clarkson left Adelaide Oval on Tuesday night- after a three-game stand with no win in Adelaide - making a telling statement on list management: "People say, 'Oh, why don't you just rebuild - just go to the draft'. You can't go to the draft, it's so compromised."
3) EVERYONE IS ON NOTICE. From Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk on opening her State to the AFL and then having Richmond pair Sydney Stack and Callum Coleman-Jones breach COVID protocols: "AFL players caught breaking COVID rules should be sent home. Queensland won't tolerate it. I know the AFL takes these issues seriously ..."
4) TASTY. Famed English actor Paul Eddington once was handed a script that included the line, "once you resort to insults, you are losing the argument." So is Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V'landys showing concern for the AFL influx in Queensland by saying: "I've never seen a vegetarian eat meat. If I was a vegetarian I wouldn't eat meat. They (the AFL) can huff, they can puff but they won't blow our house down. It's solid brick."
5) FULL MOON RISING. And it was a big one. Perhaps the final word belongs to Port Adelaide's 2012 captain Dom Cassisi who wrote: "150th year of celebrating our great club; top of the ladder; best young list in the competition; best player retention in the competition ... nothing infuriates me more when our own people drag their own club through the mud. Where is the respect? If you are a supporter, be grateful for the rich history and unparalleled success. If you're a past player, be grateful to have even worn the jumper. If you're a current player, know the responsibility that comes with wearing the jumper."
THURSDAY marks the 150th anniversary of the Port Adelaide Football Club's third and final competitive match of its inaugural season. After 1-1 draws at the North Parklands (next to Adelaide Oval) and at Buck's Flat, Glanville, the decider against Young Australian returned to the city.
The Advertiser reported on Saturday, September 10: "The football season will be closed this afternoon, by a match between the Young Australian and Port Clubs, on the North Park Lands." Port Adelaide playing on the last Saturday of the season became an early tradition ...
On Monday, the game was recorded with these notes:
The return match between the Young Australian and Port Adelaide Football clubs was played on the North Park Lands on Saturday afternoon, September 10, and the weather being fine, there was a fair muster of spectators. There were 15 players on each side, and Messrs. H. Y. Sparks and J. Wald acted respectively as captains. The result of the play was two goals for Young Australians, which were gained by Messrs. Sparks and K. Aldridge. The game was an exceedingly good one, and the Young Australians especially showing some good play. The Concordia Band was present, and enlivened proceedings.
Port Adelaide formally closed its inaugural season on October 1, 1870 with an internal between the "Blues" and "Whites" in recognition of the team's first colours.