AFL Debate Club: Are the Blues a legitimate flag contender from outside the top four?

Welcome to ESPN's AFL Debate Club, the column in which our writers and contributors will take one prompt from the week and put their opinion on the record. The kicker? No opinion is immune from criticism!

This week, Rohan Connolly and Jake Michaels debate whether or not Carlton can run the table and win a premiership from outside the top four.

Are the Blues a legitimate flag contender from outside the top four?

Rohan Connolly: Don't get me wrong, this has been a very impressive comeback given where Carlton was placed after 13 rounds. And seven wins on the trot is certainly nothing to be sneezed at. But I do think the Blues winning a premiership from the bottom half of the eight is a bridge too far.

I genuinely admire what Carlton is doing right now, particularly on Sunday, coming from behind without three key midfielders in Sam Walsh, Adam Cerra and Matt Kennedy, and an important key forward in Harry McKay. Michael Voss deserves real credit for having instilled a tougher streak in this team.

My reservations about a Carlton premiership aren't even necessarily just about them. It's as much simply about the nature of the finals system. The final eight (of which I'm a big fan) rightly almost always rewards the teams that have compiled the best records across a five-month home-and-away season. And that won't be the Blues.

As much as I think the pre-finals bye has (wrongly) weakened that advantage a little, in 23 completed seasons since the current system was introduced, only the Western Bulldogs in 2016 have been able to go all the way from the bottom half of the eight.

Indeed, only another two teams (GWS in 2019 and Dogs again in 2021) have been able to even reach a Grand Final from beyond the top four, and both ended up being hammered in the big one.

Simply, at the pointy end of a long, draining season (and even longer this year with an extra game) the effort of winning four cut-throat finals in four weeks almost always proves too great, regardless of the size of the roll that team is on.

If this Carlton surge continues, there'll be some pretty obvious "what ifs" to be had about that costly six-game losing streak earlier in the season.

But a premiership is and should be about what happens over six months, not just a few weeks of finals. And, sorry, Blues, in my view, even in this relatively even AFL season, if you ain't finishing top four, you ain't winning it.

Jake Michaels: Absolutely!

Now some of you will argue recency bias has clouded my take here, but shouldn't what you've done recently matter most when determining who is (and is not) a premiership contender? Of course it should.

The Blues have climbed from the canvas and turned their season around in dramatic fashion, winning seven straight games to jump to fifth spot with three to play. If they beat the Demons this weekend, they'll be odds-on to head into September riding an unthinkable 10-game win streak.

It's an opportune time to remind you the two sides who contested last year's Grand Final happened to be the two with the longest winning streaks: Geelong (15) and Sydney (nine). It's true, the season is a marathon and not a sprint, but it's also true you need to be hitting your straps at the right time. No prizes are handed out for peaking in late July.

Since Round 14, the Blues rank first for points scored, points from stoppage and contested possession, as well as top four for pressure and territory differential. They are smashing teams in tight, dominating the clearances and contest to give their forward line plenty of opportunity.

But the most impressive part of Carlton's win streak is that they've managed it without several best 22 players, including Sam Walsh, Adam Cerra and Harry McKay, as well as Matt Kennedy, Mitch McGovern and Jack Silvagni. Just imagine the confidence this side will have when these players begin returning to the team.

The other reason I'm quite bullish on the Blues' flag prospects is the fact they will likely get an 'easier' path to the Grand Final than what you'd usually expect for a team who missed the top four. In fact, depending on how the ladder shakes out, Carlton, at worst, would have one final away from the MCG. At best, they'd play all four of them there.

Do I expect Patrick Cripps to be hoisting the premiership cup in eight weeks time? No. But is his side a massive chance of repeating the efforts of the 2016 Western Bulldogs? I direct you back to my first word!