How they stand: The Cowboys' huge winning streak may have come to an end but that loss to the Sharks in Round 16 may have been the wake-up call they needed. After cutting it finer and finer every week, their last two performances have been two of the most consistent in months and they now seem to be building wins the right way. Following the Round 19 win over Manly, coach Paul Green said it was the time of year when his side dips into their trick bag and adds wrinkles to their attacking game – case in point the set play for the first try of the match. If this footy side wasn't entertaining enough already, there is more to come.
If this were 2014, when 36 competition points was enough to earn the Roosters the minor premiership, North Queensland would be well on their way to a maiden JJ Giltinan Shield. However, their intrastate rivals Brisbane are travelling one win better this year, while the in-form Bondi boys are lurking in third, six points from the top. A top-four finish is all but locked in as the fifth-placed Storm sit four wins behind with just seven games remaining. Holding a place in the top two is the expectation for Green's charges.
Round 20: v Eels at 1300SMILES Stadium, 7pm Monday, July 27
Round 21: v Raiders at 1300SMILES Stadium, 5.30pm Saturday August 1
Round 22: v Sharks at Remondis Stadium, 5.30pm Saturday August 8
Round 23: v Rabbitohs at1300SMILES Stadium, 7.45pm Thursday August 13
Round 24: v Warriors at Mt Smart Stadium, 5.30pm Saturday August 22
Round 25: v Storm at AAMI Park, 7.30pm Saturday August 29
Round 26: v Titans at 1300SMILES Stadium, 7.30pm Saturday September 5
Key clash: It is simply a matter of maintaining what they have already built from here on out. With a 13-4 record including a perfect 8-0 streak in New South Wales, the Cowboys have checked all the required boxes. Through improved travel protocols they have proven that the road is no longer an obstacle; nevertheless a rare win against the Warriors in Auckland would be a nice touch.
North Queensland has not won across the ditch in four tries since their 34-12 success in May 2009. It took until the 80th heart-stopping minute and a Jake Granville hat-trick to bury the Warriors in Townsville earlier this year, but the Cowboys are hoping those days are over.
Key player: Johnathan Thurston is the best player on the planet – so good that the old argument was always that the Cowboys couldn't win without him. Victories against Wests and St George Illawarra have proven that theory wrong, but they still cannot win a premiership without their premier player. His numbers jump off the page – with 18 line-break assists and 20 try assists Thurston has five and seven more units respectively than the next best in the NRL and is well on his way to a fourth Dally M medal. Averaging 64 touches per game, he is one of only two non-hookers (the other being Luke Keary, 54 touches) to feature in the league's top 15 for receives per game.
Injury report: Tautau Moga is the only Cowboy to have been ruled out for the year, but Matt Scott will be carrying a neck complaint into the off-season. Matt Wright got his left hand sliced open by the stud of Willie Mason's boot in Round 19, but avoided structural damage and could miss a week at most. The rest of the squad is fully healthy. Things are tracking nicely in the injury department up north... hopefully not too nicely.
NRL.com predicted finish: 2nd.