Can Pies go all the way?
COLLINGWOOD have continued their charge towards a top four berth, downing Essendon 12.6 (78) to 9.8 (62) on Sunday to notch their seventh win in a row for the first time since 2012.
The 16-point victory was hardly pretty and not overly convincing, but the Magpies booted five majors to Essendon's two in the fourth term to send the Bombers out of finals contention essentially once and for all.
At the time of the final siren, Collingwood was back to second on the ladder and one step closer to an MCG qualifying final. Only a West Coast victory in Perth could oust them from second-in-line to Richmond's pole position.
For Magpies fans, daring to dream is no problem, but coach Nathan Buckley will be aware his side will need to lift if it wants to make a splash in September.
Steele Sidebottom collected 27 disposals and booted two goals in his 200th game, while skipper Scott Pendlebury was the consummate professional in from of just under 70,000 fans, amassing 34 touches and laying eight tackles. He also had six clearances in the final quarter alone.
Jordan De Goey was electric up forward, while Mason Cox booted a crucial late goal to seal the deal.
Devon Smith, Zach Merrett and Dyson Heppell all won more than 30 possessions, while Mitch Brown kicked three majors.
The cold truth is only Richmond is truly playing like a top four team at the moment, but filling the other three spots is less about fluency or glamour and more about winning form, and Collingwood has the latter in spades having not lost since May 13.
Earlier, it was a peculiar site to see an Essendon starting a midfield consisting of Jake Stringer and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti.
There would have also been long odds on the Bombers boasting a starting forward-line of Shaun McKernan, Mitch Brown, Mark Baguley, Travis Colyer and Jake Long four month ago.
But then again, Essendon has endured a bizarre season. It is the only team to lose to a Carlton side which is having the worst season in the club's rich history, only to defeat Geelong seven days later.
Heading into Sunday's win or crash blockbuster, the Dons had quietly notched three consecutive victories, including a rare success over in the west against the Eagles.
Collectively, Essendon is as hard to predict as the Pakistan cricket team. The gap between good and bad is vast. There is little consistency, plenty of talent and a game plan which has looked backwards at times and insatiable at other times. On Sunday, everything clicked OK but to no avail.
All up their season will result in no finals action, which by common measure means they have regressed from 2017.
Essendon fans were incensed, particularly in the first half, over what they perceived to be a lopsided free-kick count. Heading into Round 16, no team had benefited from the umpires more than Collingwood and the trend continued early in the match.
But as is often the case, as Essendon worked their way back into the contest the free kicks began to fall their way. It ended 27-17 in Collingwood's favour.
The Dons followed Collingwood's four straight goals in the first term with the only three majors in the second to head into the main break leading by a solitary point. An upset was brewing as rain began to fall.
Of the highlights in the opening half, Sidebottom's left-foot finish from 50 metres was perfect in every way.
Late in the first, Will Hoskin-Elliott appeared to go down with a bad knee injury, only to return to the field in the second term hampered but not done.
One of the three ex-GWS Giants playing, Hoskin-Elliott had next to no influence on the game but at least his presence allowed the Magpies to execute rotations fully. He had two touches but one of them was a critical goal.
Shortly after Hoskin-Elliott went down, Dons defender Patrick Ambrose cursed on the mark when he realised he'd strained his hamstring.
It left Essendon one player down and with a steep mountain to climb. Only in the dying seconds were the numbers evened up when Magpie ninth-gamer Flynn Appleby limped from the field with a right hamstring complaint.
But it was another Kevin Sheedy disciple, Taylor Adams, who appeared to hammer the nail in when he tackled Long and won a free kick 35 metres out from goal as the clock ticked down in the final quarter. We should have known better though, because the tit-for-tat pattern of the game meant that Andrew McGrath snapped to peg one back, before Jordan De Goey responded immediately at the Punt Road end for his third.
This was not a memorable contest for any aesthetically gratifying reason. Nor was it free-flowing as Steve Hocking would like.
But it was a battle between two bitter rivals on the biggest stage, the consequences of which were fatal for Essendon and significant for Collingwood.
Above all else, the win was another example of Magpie resilience when tested. By the time Nathan Buckley's men take the field in Round 17, it will have been more than two months since they tasted defeat.
It's not yet the Tiger train of late 2017, but the Pie plane has lift-off and some serious momentum.