Essendon lurches into its Finals campaign with a MARS Rating of just 988.2, rating it behind both the 9th-placed Roos on 1,002.4 and the 10th-placed Dogs on 1,000.9. That makes the Dons the lowest MARS rated team to participate in a Finals series since the West Coast team of 2002, which entered September rated 987.7 and exited in week 1, ironically at the hands of the Dons.
(Incidentally, if you're comparing the historical MARS Ratings here with those I've published at the end of previous seasons be aware that there will be some relatively minor changes in Ratings for most teams as I'm now using the official AFL designations to determine home team status for all current and historical games.)
(please click on the image for a larger version)
In missing out on the Finals despite being rated as high as 1,002.4, the Roos have continued a tradition of relatively strong teams being consigned to the stands in September: Adelaide in 2010 (rated 1,003.2), St Kilda in 2007 (1,002.2), Fremantle also in 2007 (1,008.6), Geelong in 2006 (1,002.1), Brisbane in 2005 (1,009.4), Adelaide in 2004 (1,004.9), Sydney in 2002 (1,012.9), Bulldogs also in 2002 (1,005.3), Collingwood in 2001 (1,001.8) and Sydney in 2000 (1,002.2). The Roos are, in fact, the highest-rated team to finish in 9th spot on the competition ladder (though higher-rated teams have finished lower on the ladder).
Another way of measuring Essendon's relatively lowly Rating given its ladder finish is to look at the spread of MARS Ratings for teams finishing 8th at the end of the home-and-away period across seasons 1999 to 2011.
From the chart at left you can see that Essendon is rated about 16 Ratings Points lower than the average team finishing 8th across these 13 seasons.
Note also that Collingwood, rated 1,061.9, are only a couple of Ratings Points short of being the highest ever rated team entering a Finals series; but for dropping almost 8 Ratings Points in the last home-and-away round to the Cats they would comfortably have been this team.
One other feature of this table that stands out to me is the sharp decline in the average MARS Ratings of teams finishing 2nd when compared with those finishing 3rd (just over 10 Ratings Points), of teams finishing 4th compared with those finishing 5th (also about 10 Ratings Points), and of teams finishing 8th versus those finishing 9th (about 9 Ratings Points). The latter two differences could be seen as, at least partly, justifying the current practices of providing teams finishing in the top 4 with the double-chance and of conducting an 8-team Finals series.
Notwithstanding the relative weakness of the Dons, this year's finalists represent, on average, the highest-rated set of Finalists on record, continuing a trend, starting in 2007, of ever-higher rated finalists and, as a consequence, of ever-lower rated non-finalists.
This season the difference between the average rating of finalists and non-finalists is a whopping 57.2 Ratings Points, almost 20 Points higher than it was in 2007.
What you can also see in the spread chart at right is the relatively high level of dispersion of team ratings this season compared with previous seasons, suggesting that it is the relative extremes of the very highest and lowest rated teams that has driven the vast difference in the averages of the top and bottom halves.
While we're in an historical mood, here's another chart showing each team's end-of-home-and-away season MARS Rating and competition ladder position for each of the seasons 1999 to 2011.
The similarity in the shapes of the two "worms" for most teams is striking. (The Suns' worms have, of course, yet to graduate from being mere points - so it seems there was a point to the Suns' participation this year after all - which is why you can't see much for them in the chart above.)
I'll finish by providing a summary of the results from week 1 of the Finals for all series between and including seasons 2000 to 2010, for which period the operation of the Finals has been identical.
The historical domination of teams finishing 6th over those finishing 7th is quite a curiosity - over the past 11 seasons, only the 7th-placed Dees of 2006 have beaten their 6th-placed rivals, which in that year was the Saints.
Equally curious is the relative success that 8th-placed teams have had over teams finishing 5th. That said, in 3 of the last 4 seasons, the team finishing 5th has prevailed, the exception being the Pies who beat Adelaide in 2008 after finishing in the last Finals-grabbing ladder position.