Geelong have survived a huge third-quarter scare from Adelaide to give their three departing champions an appropriate send-off with an entertaining 39-point AFL win at Simonds Stadium.
Despite the 17.17 (119) to 11.14 (80) win, the Cats will still miss out on playoff action for the first time since 2006, while the Crows can look forward to an elimination final against the Western Bulldogs.
Steve Johnson, James Kelly and Mathew Stokes were chaired from the ground on Saturday by their Cats teammates, ending celebrated careers totalling 715 games and eight premierships.
As befitting one of the most-enigmatic players in the sport, Johnson mixed sublime skill with several frustrating errors.
His worst moment came during the third quarter when he chose to snap over his shoulder rather than kicking a regulation drop punt for goal from 30 metres out, only for it to fall 10 metres short.
It came midway through a run of five successive goals from the Crows which allowed them to narrow the margin to a single point.
But the Cats were able to steady, kicking the next three majors and then outscoring Adelaide by six goals to two in the final quarter – the most popular coming from Johnson who lifted the crowd into a frenzy with a brilliant mark in the goalsquare.
Adelaide’s Sam Jacobs was the dominant ruckman on the ground, while Eddie Betts kicked a game-high four goals for the Crows, all of them coming in the second half.
Rampaging midfielder Patrick Dangerfield was also among the Crows’ best players, which would have produced mixed emotions from the Simonds Stadium faithful as he has been strongly linked to a move to Geelong next year.
In a moment of sporting theatre, the Cats’ fans stood and cheered as Dangerfield took a shot for goal after the siren – only for it to drift in for a point.
Ahead of next weekend’s knockout final against the Bulldogs, Adelaide will be sweating on the fitness of important utility Brodie Smith, who hobbled off the ground in the first term after injuring his right ankle and was unable to return.
Meanwhile, departing ex-skipper Jed Adcock has inspired the Brisbane Lions‘ upset eight-point AFL win over finals-bound Western Bulldogs in a Gabba thriller.
The Lions drew the curtain on a horror year when they notched just their fourth win of 2015 – 19.16 (130) to 19.8 (122) – moving ahead of lowly Carlton who are playing defending champions Hawthorn on Saturday.
The Bulldogs were guaranteed sixth spot and a home final against Adelaide after the Crows loss.
Told he could not be guaranteed a run in 2016, ex-Lions captain Adcock, 29, turned back the clock in his farewell Brisbane clash with four goals and 21 touches.
It was not an ideal hit-out for the Western Bulldogs ahead of their first finals campaign since 2010, with Stewart Crameri (cork) also to be monitored ahead of their finals opener.
Elsewhere, sharp-shooter Jay Schulz kicked four goals as Port Adelaide belted a second-string Fremantle by 69 points.
Schulz, rumoured to be a transfer target of the Dockers, was the dominant forward in Port’s 18.14 (122) to 8.5 (53) triumph at Adelaide Oval.
The Dockers, assured of top spot regardless of the result, rested a dozen players – 11 at the selection table and late scratching Zac Dawson.
Fremantle will likely host a qualifying final against Sydney next Saturday night but enter the playoffs with three losses from their past four games.
Port finish the season with 12 wins, one shy of eighth-placed North Melbourne – missing the finals for the first time in three seasons under coach Ken Hinkley.
And Isaac Smith has sent a pre-finals shudder through Hawthorn, suffering a knee injury in their cakewalk 57-point AFL win over Carlton.
The speedster was hurt during the third term and did not return in the 17.11 (113) to 8.8 (56) win at the MCG.
Carlton’s loss, coupled with the upset Brisbane win over the Western Bulldogs, meant the Blues finished bottom.
It is their fourth wooden spoon since 2002.
The immediate speculation was that Smith had hurt a medial ligament in his left knee.
He is in doubt for next weekend’s qualifying final against West Coast and perhaps deeper into the finals.