A dominant North Queensland has cemented fourth place on the Telstra Premiership ladder with a 32-16 win on Saturday night, while the Titans are now sweating on a result going their way to feature in the finals for the first time since 2010.
From a team that had appeared to bottom out six weeks from September, the Cowboys actually enter the post-season as one of the league's form teams.
Saturday's battle of two of the game's greats was one-way traffic with patches of Thurston brilliance compounding Hayne's poor showing. In the plays they came face-to-face, Hayne found himself on his back multiple times.
Both sides came out swinging in an entertaining, up-tempo first half that should have featured more points if not for some good defensive scramble and lack of support play.
Cowboys centre Justin O'Neill got scoring underway in the fifth minute with first hands to a well-placed Lachlan Coote chip kick across the face of goal, while the home side was soon having their way in the middle of the field.
Antonio Winterstein crossed for the Cowboys' second and the score could have read 18-0 if Morgan had handed off to O'Neill.
They were turning the ball inside and hitting holes with regularity as the likes of Taumalolo, Winterstein and Morgan had a field day.
Meanwhile the Titans were gallant in yardage sets, but seemed to drop the ball each time they threatened to bend the Cowboys line.
The home side were owning possession and went 28 minutes without an incomplete set before David Mead scored a try off a Nathan Friend kick against the run of play.
Gavin Cooper gave the Cowboys a 12-point lead with a nifty try close to the sticks eight minutes into the second half, and with 27 minutes to go the Cowboys had a comfortable 20-6 buffer after Thurston's penalty goal.
Ryan James equalled the all-time try tally for a front-rower with a solo effort from short range next to the sticks, in what has become his signature play, but that was as close as the visitors got.
James Tamou scored with some nice footwork and strength close to the line and Konrad Hurrell ran 90 metres off a Lachlan Coote intercept, but it was Cooper having the last laugh – putting the finishing touches on a Michael Morgan break to score his second of the night.
This was exactly the statement win the defending premiers were searching for coming into the final round, and will enter the finals in as good a shape as any team in the competition.
The Titans' finals hopes hinge on the result of the Wests Tigers-Canberra Raiders game on Sunday afternoon, while North Queensland – with a record-equalling 11-1 home record this season – have cemented back-to-back top-four berths for the first time in club history.
North Queensland Cowboys 32 (Gavin Cooper 2, Justin O'Neill, Antonio Winterstein, James Tamou tries; Johnathan Thurston 6 goals) defeated Gold Coast Titans 16 (David Mead, Ryan James, Konrad Hurrell tries; Tyrone Roberts 2 goals) at 1300SMILES Stadium. Half-time: Cowboys 12-6. Crowd: 21,495.