The Cowboys' late-season slump extended to three matches with the defending premiers going down to the Roosters 22-10 at Allianz Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Several players put in their best 80-minute performance of the season for the Tricolours, while North Queensland's struggles on the road continued.
Shaun Kenny-Dowall goes from strength to strength
Shaun Kenny Dowall's season went to new heights on Sunday afternoon with the Roosters centre putting in arguably his best game of 2016.
The 28-year-old has been his side's most consistent attacking threat this year and that trend contended against the defending premiers with Kenny-Dowall scoring a try, setting one up with a glorious inside ball, and adding 170 metres to his 11 tackle breaks.
He now leads the NRL with 116 tackle busts from just 17 appearances and is firming as the favourite to take out the Jack Gibson Medal as the club's best player.
"I thought his mix was outstanding and that was a big game from Shaun," Roosters coach Trent Robinson said.
"It's hard as a centre, because Shaun – when he's on the wing – he can get lots or runs that he does in the middle of the field, whereas he had to mix up the runs in the middle of the field like he did tonight, plus also get that early ball out to the centres which he had joy with."
Roosters handle adversity in style
When you have three tries disallowed, players are entitled to kick stones and dwell on the negatives. And that's what the Roosters might have done a few weeks ago.
But it was never going to happen against the Cowboys.
Blake Ferguson was denied a four-pointer for a high shot on Kyle Feldt, Latrell Mitchell had a try disallowed for a forward pass, and Mitchell Pearce was ruled to have lost the ball as he reached out to score.
Any one of those moments could have lingered in the players' minds, but Roosters skipper Jake Friend said they were committed to moving on from the tough calls.
"We talked about it before the game," Friend said.
"Those sorts of things are out of our control, so [it's about] just getting on with the next job, and I think throughout the game the boys just did that time and time again.
"Whether a decision [made on-field] or [by the] bunker went against us, it didn't affect anyone. It was really good by the whole team."
You don't have to finish top four to win the comp
History suggests that the only teams capable of winning the grand final are those that finish the regular season in the top four.
According to Cowboys coach Paul Green, that trend could be bucked in 2016.
The Cowboys sit in fifth position on the Telstra Premiership, three points behind the Raiders who play on Monday night.
If results go their way, North Queensland could sneak into the top four if they win their remaining games, but if not, they'll have to navigate their way through September without the luxury of a second chance.
Given the closeness of this year's competition, Green said anything was possible come the business end of the year but admitted there would be mitigating circumstances for the chasing pack.
"I do think a team can probably win it outside of the top four," Green said.
"There are a lot of factors that go into it, like travel schedules and turnarounds and things like that. It does take a lot of out of you. Those games go up a level when you get to finals time, so they do take a lot out of the boys."
Away woes return for North Queensland
It appeared the Cowboys had overcome their away jitters with a vastly improved 2015 campaign that culminated in them winning a preliminary final and the grand final on the road.
But any hopes of history repeating – in the regular season at least – have gone out the window with the defending premiers slumping to their eighth loss from 11 matches outside of Townsville.
Only the Knights, Roosters and Dragons have worse records than the Cowboys in 2016 when it comes to away form, and it's something they need to address.
North Queensland has one more away game – a daunting trip to Belmore to take on the Bulldogs – and they will be forced to travel three more times in the finals unless they can somehow scrape into the top four.
Who partners Mitchell Pearce in the halves in 2017?
The signing of Rabbitohs playmaker Luke Keary for next season appeared to give the Roosters a clear choice as to who should wear the No.6 jersey, but the current form of Connor Watson has thrown those plans into disarray.
The 20-year-old has been in scintillating touch since making the role his own in Round 19 against the Sharks.
Watson has been a weapon with ball in hand this season and was a standout on Sunday afternoon with two line breaks and 117 metres.
As a premiership winner, Keary deserves first crack in the halves, but the Roosters need to find room for Watson in their final 17 as he can make things happen that others simply can't.