The Blues sit six and four after the first 10 rounds. That's exactly the situation they were in 12 months ago. Back then it was "top four or bust", and bust they did. This year, they say there are "no limits".
A win over Essendon on Friday will have Carlton supporters starting to dream big time. The Eagles, Crows and Magpies are not firing and if the Bombers lose, that will be four losses in five games and the downward late-season spiral that we have seen in recent years will be a reality again. The Blues faithful will be saying: “Forget the eight, start focusing on the four.”
The Blues, having lost their first three games, have been happy to fly under the radar. The attention on Essendon, Melbourne, Buddy, Vossy and Eddie has meant little credit and attention has been given to their six wins in the past seven games. It would have been a clean sweep of seven but for the stupidity of Jarrad Waite getting himself suspended. And they have done this without the input of two of their most important players, Andrew Carrazzo and Eddie Betts.
Mick Malthouse will still be working out the strengths and weaknesses of his new team but one thing he has them doing is getting in hard, fast and first to win the contested ball. They have smashed the opposition in this area, up by an average of 25 in each of the past six weeks.
The Blues are also defending much better than they did in the first month of the season. In the past five weeks, they have conceded the fewest inside 50s.
Perhaps it's no coincidence that the team's better defensive efforts began when new skipper Marc Murphy was criticised for a lack of defensive accountability.
Two players the Bombers will have to contain are Andrew Walker and Jeff Garlett. Both have been in red-hot form at opposite ends of the ground. After a couple of seasons up forward, Walker is relishing being back in defence. Bouncing off the half-back line, he just keeps on getting the ball.
With his dash and penetrating kicks, he makes attacking 80-metre plays. Walker is second only to Murphy for disposals at Carlton. Few defenders could boast that. Garlett, in the absence of Betts, has stepped up. Last year he kicked 29 goals. Already he leads the way this season with 27 majors and plenty of assists. Throw Betts back in alongside Garlett, Chris Yarran and Dennis Armfield and you have the slickest small-forward set-up in the AFL. Garlett also leads the way with tackles. He has laid 42 and Yarran 28. Brock McLean, who is playing predominantly midfield/forward, has also put on 28 bone-crunchers.
What the Blues desperately need to complete the scoring mix is for Waite to be disciplined and in good form up forward. The little fellows will play their part but in big games, big forwards are needed to step up. Waite is the key.
He is capable of taking 10 marks and kicking five goals. Levi Casboult is worth persevering with too, if only because he can take a contested pack mark. I think he will be a better player than Shaun Hampson, as long as he is given games to develop. Last year, the Blues averaged 94 points per game. This year it's up to 105.
A trend in today's football with the better sides is to develop versatility among the playing group.
Malthouse is doing this with Carlton. Yarran, Walker, Bryce Gibbs and Lachie Henderson can swing to either end of the ground.
Midfielders in Murphy, McLean and Chris Judd are spending more time forward, while Kade Simpson and Heath Scotland are working midfield/back. Apart from rucking, Matthew Kreuzer has played key forward and key defence and, in the absence of Carrazzo, Ed Curnow and Jaryd Cachia have been given the "run with" roles. Out of favour, and out of the back line, are Nick Duigan and Jeremy Laidler. You couldn't fault their competitiveness but their speed and skill is questionable. So taller, quicker types in Simon White and Josh Bootsma have been rightly preferred.
You sense the Carlton players are now playing with real resolve. Is it a new coach, a chance to regain last year's lost credibility or a realisation that time is running out for Judd, Waite, Scotland, Carrazzo and Simpson? The Blues hierarchy have said there are "no limits" to 2013. A win over Essendon and Hawthorn next week would give Blues supporters a week off with the bye, and a lot of time to dream.
Could a 17th premiership be a possibility? You never know. The footy gods are smiling. Two months ago eight teams stood between Carlton and the cup. Now, it's just four: Fremantle, Sydney, Geelong and Hawthorn.