Every year, without fail, the race for promotion to the Premier League is packed full of drama and excitement - and this season is no different.
Leaders Norwich currently boast a healthy five-point advantage over second-placed Watford, with the play-off spots occupied by Brentford, Swansea, Barnsley and Reading. Bournemouth are just one point outside the top six, while Cardiff, Millwall and Middlesbrough retain very slim hopes.
The Canaries could, in fact, be the first team to book their place in next season's Premier League this weekend. Should they beat Derby at Pride Park on Saturday and both Brentford and Swansea fail to win their respective fixtures against Preston and Millwall, Daniel Farke's men will secure automatic promotion with five games to spare.
To keep up-to-date with that likelihood, tune in to Soccer Saturday on Sky Sports News from 3pm this Saturday afternoon.
Gillette Soccer Saturday: Build-Up
So, as the conclusion to the most unique of seasons approaches, we assess the contenders for promotion to the top flight...
Current Championship table
Projected Championship table
Based on their current ratios for goals scored, conceded and points per game, Norwich would win this year's Sky Bet Championship title with 100 points, with Watford joining them in the Premier League. The teams contesting the play-offs would be Brentford, Swansea, Barnsley and Bournemouth.
Norwich leading the way
With three of their last five Championship campaigns having ended in promotion, it is safe to say that, more often than not, Norwich know how to find their way out. Two years ago, with the end of Premier League parachute payments looming, Daniel Farke guided the Canaries to the title despite a rocky start - and it looks as though history is on course to repeat itself this time around, too.
Four points from the opening four games brought them back down to Earth with a bang and left them languishing in 17th during the first international break of the season. From there, Norwich kicked on and, while displays weren't always necessarily easy on the eye, they managed to grind out the difficult results that define champions.
They have almost exclusively sat top since the end of November, with two lengthy winning streaks along the way interspersed by the odd defeat to keep them grounded. A run of four games without scoring in all competitions from January into February afforded Brentford a brief flirtation with top spot and proved a timely reminder that nothing is guaranteed in this division.
In the summer leading up to their previous title triumph, Teemu Pukki and Emi Buendia arrived at Carrow Road, while a burgeoning talent by the name of Max Aarons made his first steps into senior football. Interest, notably for the latter pair, was high in the Premier League and it hasn't faded since the return to the second tier. Crucially, the trio will remain at the club until the season reaches its conclusion, at least.
They returned to action after the March international break looking to extend their 10-game unbeaten run - which included a club-record nine successive wins - but conceded a late equaliser against Preston. They did, however, run riot on Tuesday night, sticking seven past a sorry Huddersfield.
Though Farke has previously been reluctant to discuss a potential title win, the writing is, surely, on the wall now.
Watford looking good for an immediate PL return
Watford have rarely been out of the top six since the season started with Vladimir Ivic at the helm, but since he was replaced by Xisco Munoz in the lead up to Christmas, their season has taken on a whole new lease of life.
The cheerful Spaniard made a winning start on Boxing Day, when the Hornets beat Norwich 1-0 at Vicarage Road, and that has been a continuous theme in Hertfordshire, with 14 of his 20 games in charge so far ending in victory, including eight of the last 10.
An upturn in fortunes on the road has been key to keeping the club in the race for promotion; under Ivic, the record read: P10 W2 D5 L3, while under Munoz, it is P10 W5 D3 L2, with the two defeats coming against Swansea and Bournemouth and settled by just a one-goal margin.
It is the run-in that could prove problematic for Munoz and Co, however. In their final five games, they face three of the other five teams that currently make up the top six: Norwich, Brentford and Swansea. The dominant form of late will fill them with confidence during this period but a top-two berth is not yet confirmed and they'll have to continue to bring their A-game.
Swansea slipping away
Having sneaked into the play-offs on goal difference alone last season, Steve Cooper set out to make it much less of a close call for his Swansea side this time around. Defensive solidity has been paramount during this push and the approach is paying dividends, despite the Joe Rodon-sized hole that was left in the backline when the Welsh international left for Tottenham in October.
The experienced Ryan Bennett was brought in on a free transfer from Wolves as his replacement and, alongside Marc Guehi - who re-joined on another loan deal from Chelsea - and 20-year-old Ben Cabango, has helped the Swans towards their tally of 18 clean sheets. In 39 league games this term, they have conceded 31 goals, which has only been bettered by Norwich and Watford so far.
While they have been miserly at the back, they have, in fact, scored the second-lowest number of goals of any current top 10 side, with their tally of 45 second only to Millwall's 41.
The January addition of Conor Hourihane was an inspired one, with the on-loan Aston Villa man scoring four goals and assisting another in his first seven appearances, but he came off injured in the South Wales derby defeat to Cardiff on March 20. Meanwhile, Andre Ayew has scored just two goals from open play in 2021, and Jamal Lowe has drawn a blank in his last 13.
Swansea have found the past month-and-a-half tricky to navigate, with three wins and four defeats across the last eight, which has seen them rapidly slip away from the top two. They do still have a game in hand over Norwich and two over Watford, but with almost a month since their last goal (Hourihane vs Luton, March 13), the momentum seems to have dropped at a crucial stage.
Can Brentford get back on track?
Brentford have a tendency to start seasons slowly and this campaign was no different, though having endured a gutting play-off final defeat to west London neighbours Fulham back in August, few could have blamed them. But it would do Thomas Frank's men a disservice to say they had suffered a hangover, particularly given what followed a 3-2 defeat to Stoke in late October
Any lengthy unbeaten run is a feat to be applauded, but the Bees' 21-game streak between October 24 and February 14 was quite remarkable by Championship standards. The first half was, admittedly, littered with a few too many draws, but a run of eight wins from the final nine tied in perfectly with a brief stutter by Norwich that saw them reach top spot.
The star of the show was - and continues to be - Ivan Toney. The 25-year-old - who joined from Peterborough as Ollie Watkins' replacement - has hit 28 goals in 38 Championship appearances and, with seven games still to play, is on course to break Glenn Murray's record 30-goal haul, set in 2012/13.
Their stint at the summit was short-lived; as the Canaries regained their footing, Brentford lost theirs. Valentine's Day was soured by a 2-0 loss to Barnsley, QPR edged the west London derby three days later, while a poor performance in a defeat to Coventry at St Andrew's was later capped by the news that influential left-back Rico Henry's hamstring injury will likely keep him out until later this month.
Subsequent wins over Sheffield Wednesday and Stoke seemed to have put them on the right track again but a titanic clash against Norwich at Carrow Road ended in favour of the Canaries and, after a gritty 1-0 win over Blackburn on March 12, they dropped four points in as many days when they drew with Derby and Nottingham Forest after failing to protect the lead.
Subsequent draws against Huddersfield and Birmingham, coupled with Watford's resurgence, means that, even with a game in hand, reaching the automatic promotion places will be a challenge. With a record of nine failed play-off campaigns from nine attempts, Bees fans will be hoping for a stroke of fortune in the final weeks of the season.
Barnsley's admirable rise
It's still surreal to think what Barnsley - who survived by the skin of their teeth last season and were in the relegation zone as recently as October, when Gerhard Struber departed for the New York Red Bulls - have achieved so far this term.
Struber's successor - Valerien Ismael - picked up four wins from his first five league games and by the end of December, the Tykes were sat in eighth. The year started with three straight defeats, bringing optimistic fans' expectations down a notch, but the journey was only just beginning.
Since January 27, they have been on a mesmerising upward trajectory from the relative comfort of mid-table to the cusp of the play-off places, which they entered for the first time on March 6 after a 1-0 win over Birmingham - their seventh win in a row.
A 12-match unbeaten run was brought to an end just before the international break when Sheffield Wednesday edged the Yorkshire derby 2-1 at Oakwell, but Ismael's men have since responded with four points from games against Reading and Luton.
The cushion between themselves and the chasing pack has narrowed to three points, but with all things considered, Barnsley look on course to book an unprecedented play-off spot.
Reading still in touch
Just four years ago, under Jaap Stam, Reading earned their best chance at returning to the top flight when they lined up against Huddersfield in the play-off final, only to agonisingly miss out in a penalty shootout at Wembley. Three seasons of mediocrity followed, which made their start to the current campaign all the more surprising, yet refreshing, in equal measure.
It started in bizarre circumstances when Veljko Paunovic was announced as the club's new manager two days before Mark Bowen's departure from the helm was confirmed. Quarantine rules on arrival to the UK forced his absence from the Royals' EFL Cup win over Colchester on September 5, but he was in place in the dugout for the Championship curtain-raiser seven days later.
For the best part of a month-and-a-half, they blazed a trail at the top of the league and even opened up a seven-point gap on second-placed Swansea at one point. The bubble burst in November, when they picked up just one win from five outings, but a resurgence from Boxing Day into the New Year lifted them back to fourth.
Consistency is a valued commodity in this division and it is something that is being shown in patches in Berkshire, though four defeats from seven in February - including a shock 1-0 loss to basement club Wycombe - showed there was still work to be done.
Paunovic's men took eight points from the 15 on offer in March, though they have won just once since beating Sheffield Wednesday on March 6, and with Bournemouth just a point behind in seventh - with the added bonus of two games in hand - a play-off place that had previously looked safe is in danger of slipping from their grasp.
The chasing pack
At this point, it should come as no surprise that the battle to reach the play-off places is heating up.
Everything seemed to be going swimmingly for Bournemouth legend Jason Tindall until mid-December. The cracks started to show when they only managed to snatch a 1-0 win over Wycombe after Alex Pattison's red card and when they started the year with four defeats from six, Tindall was swiftly replaced on a caretaker basis by Jonathan Woodgate, who had arrived at the club only days earlier.
The former Middlesbrough boss - who has since been appointed until the end of the season - turned results around in his first month in charge - including taking the club to the FA Cup quarter-finals. At one point, the play-offs looked unrealistic, but five wins from the last seven means the Cherries are back in the groove at just the right time.
It has been quite the year so far for Cardiff, whose slump in form resulted in Neil Harris' sacking on January 21. The greatly experienced Mick McCarthy succeeded him a day later, drew his first two games and was then only denied an unprecedented seventh straight win to complete a perfect February by Paddy McNair's late equaliser for Middlesbrough.
A resounding 4-0 win over Derby in McCarthy's 999th game in management on March 2 lifted the Bluebirds into the final play-off place at Bournemouth's expense but successive defeats at the start of April - including a 5-0 humbling at the hands of Sheffield Wednesday - has made things a lot more difficult.
Millwall sit ninth, eight points outside the top six, while, Neil Warnock - for whom McCarthy was once an apprentice at Barnsley - has kept Boro within touching distance of the top six for most of the season, even though consistency has been an issue.
Who are the favourites, then?
Norwich are the clear frontrunners for the title, and are currently priced at 1/33 to lift the trophy with Sky Bet, with Watford a 14/1 title shot and 1/10 to be promoted back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
Brentford are third favourites to be promoted at 11/10, with Bournemouth 3/1, Swansea 4/1, Barnsley 9/2 and Reading 9/1.
Cardiff (66/1) come next, though along with Middlesbrough (200/1), Millwall (500/1) Stoke (1000/1) and QPR (1500/1), it's pretty safe to say that they are significant outsiders.
The final stretch is now in sight, but nothing is decided in, arguably, the most unpredictable league in world football. What is certain is that a thrilling month lies ahead.