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Port Adelaide has already proved the surprise packet of 2014. But as the AFL season enters its home stretch, the Power is in danger of not getting the reward its efforts deserve.

Ken Hinkley’s side barely put a foot wrong for the first half of the season, but with the race for the top four as tight as in recent memory, its recent lapse has the potential to prove very costly.indeed.

After 12 rounds, Port was two games clear in top spot. It’s still third despite having lost three of its past four matches. But in a cruel twist of fate, the Power could well end up losing the all-important double chance in the last round of the home-and-away season.

The Power could well end up losing the all-important double chance in the last round of the home-and-away season.

The Power could well end up losing the all-important double chance in the last round of the home-and-away season. Photo: Getty Images

Round 23 serves up what surely is football’s biggest challenge, taking on the defensive steel of Fremantle on the Dockers’ own turf at Patersons Stadium. That game already looks like a de facto final, with a top-four spot going to the victor and the loser having to come from fifth.

For Port Adelaide, the Fremantle clash is one of two games set to determine its finals fate -  the other three weeks earlier at home against Sydney. On form, it’s difficult to tip a Port win in either game which, by my count, sentences it to fifth spot.

I’ve been through the run home of the top-eight teams plus those of the only two outside the eight still with some sort of finals chance - Adelaide and Essendon - and it’s the Power for which the bell tolls if it can’t upset either Sydney or Fremantle.one of the Swans or Dockers.

Fremantle was always going to be a big danger in a favourable home stretch, and so it’s proving. Ross Lyon’s side has won seven on the trot and is at short odds to make it 10 before a potentially season-defining clash with Geelong at Simonds Stadium, the scene of their memorable qualifying final win last year.

Another victory there and Freo could even afford to drop the Port game and still finish in the top four. But the incentive for a win would be considerable, a finish of first or second and the right to host two home finals.

While the Dockers are more than 4 per cent behind Hawthorn, I reckon they might be able to win big enough against weaker opponents to close the gap and slip past the Hawks.

Port Adelaide is one of six final-eight contenders that has to face two top-four teams - Sydney, Hawthorn, Fremantle, Geelong and Collingwood are the others. The Dockers are the only side I’ve got winning both those engagements - home dates against the Hawks and Power.

And the obvious beneficiary of all that top-four civil war is Geelong. After having slipped from the top bracket in its round-14 loss to Gold Coast, I’ve got Geelong sneaking in again at the death because of Port’s stumble and what should be a very winnable game on its own turf against the Brisbane Lions.

That, of course, is providing the Cats beat at least one of Fremantle at home or Hawthorn at the MCG in the penultimate round of the season.

And while in premiership terms, just who fills the last few spots in the eight appears of academic interest only, things look headed for a pretty tight finish there, too.

Collingwood, despite its recent slump, a critical game against Essendon on Sunday and tests against Port Adelaide and Hawthorn, will still make it by my calculations, as will a first-timer in Gold Coast.

Having got through a nightmarish six-week stretch of tough games, things get a bit more manageable for the Suns now, with the next month serving up the Western Bulldogs, Brisbane, St Kilda and Carlton, which should give Gold Coast a little breathing space before a couple more toughies.

Adelaide and Essendon are pushing, but the next fortnight against Hawthorn and Collingwood, the latter at the MCG, will be telling for the Crows, while the Bombers have the Pies, Sydney at the SCG and Gold Coast to handle if they’re going to make it.

The Crows and Dons might have left their run a fraction late. But neither would be nearly as stiff to miss out as Port Adelaide would be to miss a double chance it seemed to have firmly in its grasp for so long.