Richmond players run laps during a training session on Tuesday. The team has built a nice little buffer for itself.

Richmond players run laps during a training session on Tuesday. The team has built a nice little buffer for itself. Photo: Getty Images

As we move into the last third of the season, the AFL ladder can be roughly divided into three groups of clubs, each with vastly different aspirations over the final seven rounds.

At the top end, there's seven who are either already pencilling in their plans for a flag assault, or at least starting to think about how they will handle September, notwithstanding an unforeseen catastrophe, or in Essendon's case, administrative intervention.

At the bottom, there's five for whom 2014 has become the priority. St Kilda, for example, is one of several clubs starting to look at remedying a list riddled with holes, Melbourne is pursuing a top-quality coach, and Greater Western Sydney, given continued poor performance and crowds, is thinking bigger picture than that.

How the bottom half of the draw may end up.

And for the other half-dozen in the middle group, it's about a virtual lightning premiership, the spoils the one spot in the final eight that appears left up for grabs.

At the moment, Port Adelaide is the incumbent. But there's no shortage of potential usurpers: Carlton and West Coast are only a game shy of the Power, and North Melbourne, Adelaide and the Brisbane Lions still have a slim chance should the cards fall right.

Those five are about to embark on a series of virtual eight-point games between one another, a win strengthening one side's chances while inflicting a grievous wound on a rival. And there are nine of them, beginning on Friday night with Carlton v North Melbourne at Etihad Stadium.

How the bottom half of the draw may end up.

How the bottom half of the draw may end up.

What becomes obvious, though, when one attempts the dangerous task of tipping winners up to seven weeks ahead, is that where they fall in the fixture could have as much bearing on the final wash-up as any other factor.

North Melbourne is a good example. While Carlton will still have other chances to sneak into the eight should it blow Friday night, the Kangaroos almost certainly won't, falling potentially three games off the pace with only a half-dozen left, and the toughest run home of any of the contenders.

While we've already discussed the Roos' fragility this season, seven times losing by 16 points or less and on four occasions blowing leads of more than 30 points, it's not hard to argue the case for a North victory, it having beaten the Blues in eight of their past 10 meetings and also having won 13 of the past 17 at Etihad, even three of the four losses by only 16 points or less.

If the finals flame still flickers after Friday night, given the Roos led Geelong by seven goals earlier this season, led Adelaide all day until the last seconds, was within a kick of Hawthorn and 16 points of Collingwood, all of whom they'll meet again, they'd have to be some sort of chance.

Drop Friday night, however, and with motivation gone, you could just as easily argue a case for one win from the final seven and a dismal seven wins for the season.

Carlton's draw is friendlier, but also not without considerable challenge, even one of the more winnable games, against Gold Coast at Metricon Stadium, the scene of disaster last year that effectively spelt the end for then-coach Brett Ratten.

The Blues will certainly be keeping an eagle eye on Port Adelaide, whom they could very well end up playing for a finals spot in a de facto elimination final in round 23 at AAMI Stadium.

Richmond, in contrast, one of the Blues' opponents in the race to September, has built a nice little buffer for itself. I've got the Tigers winning potentially only two of their final seven games and still reaching a first September campaign for a dozen years.

West Coast, as opposed to the Tigers, will be paying a high price indeed for its tardy start to the year. The Eagles have picked up their game since then for not much reward, but you have to ask whether they deserve one given four losses from the first five games.

There's certainly no margin for error with games to come against Sydney on Sunday, and later on a three-week run against Essendon, Geelong and Collingwood, two of those away.

Of all the contenders for eighth, it's actually outsider Brisbane that has the smoothest path, four of its remaining seven games against the bottom four on the ladder, and even victories against Richmond and Port Adelaide are hardly out of the question.

Yet it's percentage that could well ultimately prove the Lions' undoing, their shabby 80.33 per cent worse even than St Kilda or Gold Coast. That's more than 35 percentage points behind North Melbourne, yet both have a bottom line of 6-9.

The Roos would gladly have copped a couple of Lions' smashings for just another goal in four games this year, which would instead have them 10-5 and sixth. And that's a ''what if'' that could feel like an even sharper stab of the knife if they lose on Friday evening.