The Panthers wrapped up sixth spot on the Telstra Premiership ladder with a crushing 36-6 win over the Sea Eagles to book a showdown with the Bulldogs in a mouth-watering elimination final next week.
Penrith primed for the finals
The Panthers couldn't have asked for a better performance as they prepare to take on the Bulldogs in next week's elimination final.
The contest was well and truly over before the half-time siren had even sounded, with the Panthers running in five unanswered tries to secure a 30-point lead at the break.
Penrith completed a perfect 20 from 20 sets in the first half to help secure their fifth straight win leading into the playoffs.
Panthers coach Anthony Griffin said his side was starting to hit its straps after an indifferent start to the year.
"Obviously at the start of the year we were inconsistent and we fiddled around with our team a bit," he said.
"I thought we finished the end of the year really well apart from the golden point [loss] in New Zealand. Our last eight or nine weeks have been great. We've been consistent, our defence is improving and it's put us in a good position."
The Panthers will head into next week's clash against Canterbury as strong favourites, but Griffin is wary of what the Bulldogs are capable of.
"[They're] hard, experienced, big, used to playing semi-finals [and] used to winning. They'll be very hard to beat," he said.
Panthers skipper Matt Moylan is under no illusions that his side will have to step up next week.
"It's do-or-die from now so we've got to be on the ball."
Manly's edges struggle
There's no doubt that injuries have taken their toll on the Sea Eagles this year, especially in terms of defensive combinations.
That trend continued on Sunday night as their troublesome left edge was once again exposed. Suliasi Vunivalu bagged four tries down that channel a fortnight ago, Jordan Rapana and Joey Leilua combined for five tries last week, and the Panthers had plenty of success down that side of the field as well.
"The first half [where we conceded] 30 points wasn't good enough. We've got some work to do," Sea Eagles coach Trent Barrett said.
"We obviously had some guys out there who are young and inexperienced but that's no excuse for the first half."
No better place than home
The Panthers celebrated their inaugural Old Boys' Night with the biggest crowd of the year at Pepper Stadium as 15,411 loyal fans braved the Penrith chill to cheer on their team.
"You always love playing in front of a big crowd, especially at home," Moylan said.
"It's good to see all the fans come out, especially on Father's Day and late on a Sunday. It's good to get a crowd like that for our last home game of the year."
The Panthers finished the regular season with an 8-4 record at home, but despite earning a home semi-final, they’ll take on the Bulldogs at Allianz Stadium.
Panthers coach Anthony Griffin said the support in Penrith was immense and admitted he would have campaigned to play at the foot of the mountains next week if given the chance.
"We'd be playing here if we did [have a say]," he said.
Juniors continue to shine for the Sea Eagles
Injuries have made 2016 a year to forget for Sea Eagles fans, but if there's one positive to come out of it, it's that they've been able to blood some new talent for the years ahead.
Take Holden Cup skipper Billy Bainbridge for example. The 19-year-old has impressed all and sundry with nine tries from 22 appearances in the NYC this year, and the youngster was rewarded with his NRL debut on Sunday.
While he only managed 14 minutes as a late replacement for Jamie Buhrer, he came up with 10 tackles and 22 metres to more than hold his own against the big boys.
"Our 20s have been struggling along this year but I thought he did really well when he got on there," Barrett said.
"We gave Jamie a rest at the end so Billy could get some time and that's going to be good for his development.
"He's still 18 months away from being a regular first grader but he's a terrific kid. He's tough, he's a local junior and there are a few there that are going to benefit from the experience they've gained this year."
Penrith's 30-point win was important on many levels, but perhaps one fact that will go unnoticed is what halfback Nathan Cleary was able to achieve.
The 18-year-old became the first player in history to score over 100 points in both the NRL and NYC in the same season, with Cleary taking his tally to 106 in first grade to go with 156 in the Holden Cup from just 10 matches.
He is still the third-highest points scorer in the Holden Cup this year despite playing less than half the season.
The Panthers also claimed their first Club Championship in 50 years after their Under-20s had earlier taken care of the Sea Eagles 47-14 to confirm their status as the team to beat in the Holden Cup.