Sea Eagles v Panthers: Schick Preview
If you've got dinner plans this Saturday, cancel them.
The playoffs come a week early with the Sea Eagles set to host the Panthers in a virtual elimination final at Lottoland which will see the loser miss out on the top eight if the Cowboys and Dragons both win.
In Manly's case, North Queensland wouldn't even have to win for them to miss out so long as the Cowboys preserved their superior points differential.
It would take a while to spell out all the different permutations, but here's the gist of it: both teams will head into Round 26 on 30 competition points, with the winner guaranteed a place in the post-season no matter what. The loser, however, will have to sweat on other results going their way; an unenviable position to be in at this time of the year.
It could have been a different story had the Panthers knocked off the Dragons last week, while Manly fans are still trying to work out how their side snuck past the Warriors despite trailing by seven points late in the contest.
The Sea Eagles have received a boost with Curtis Sironen named to return from a pec injury, forcing Shaun Lane out of the 17.
The Panthers have been dealt a cruel blow with in-form fullback Dylan Edwards (knee) set to be sidelined for three weeks. Skipper Matt Moylan (hamstring) looms as the logical replacement but he's only been named on an extended bench. Instead, Anthony Griffin has opted for Dean Whare in the No.1 jersey; a role he hasn't filled since Round 6, 2013.
Why the Sea Eagles can win: Last week's win over the Warriors should be evidence enough that a sound kicking game trumps flashes of brilliance more often than not. In windy conditions, Daly Cherry-Evans slotted two clutch field goals kicking into the breeze while halves partner Blake Green nailed a pair of 40/20s with the gale at his back in the first half. Those plays have come to define their season with the Sea Eagles leading the league with seven 40/20s while the Panthers have yet to kick one in 2017. Manly have slotted four field goals (equal most in the NRL) while the Panthers are yet to register a one-pointer this season. Trent Barrett's men also lead the league with 44 line dropouts compared to Penrith's 31 so you can expect Manly's markers to put plenty of pressure on first-choice kicker Nathan Cleary.
Why the Panthers can win: It mightn't look like a lot but the Panthers always seem to save their best for Round 26; especially if it's against the Sea Eagles. The mountain men have won their past four regular season finales, including victories over Manly in 2016 and 2013. It's a different story for the Sea Eagles who have managed just one Round 26 win in four years.
 Telstra Premiership: Daly Cherry-Evans vs Nathan Cleary
Line Break Assists, Try Assists, Line Breaks, Total Kicks.
The history: Played 84; Sea Eagles 50; Panthers 33; Drawn 1. Manly might have a dominant overall record against the Panthers but it's Penrith who have enjoyed all the recent success with seven wins from their past eight matches against the Sea Eagles. They've also claimed three wins from their past four trips to the northern beaches with a field goal featuring in the three most recent clashes at Lottoland.
What are the odds: This is the most even betting game of the round in almost every one of Sportsbet's markets. Both sides have been backed to win 1-12, and money is split almost 50/50 in handicap betting. One of the bigger betting games we've seen this season. Latest odds at sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin. Assist referee: Alan Shortall. Sideline officials: Jeff Younis and Brett Suttor.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live coverage from 5:30pm.
NRL.com predicts: If this were a South American third division football match then you wouldn't be surprised to see both teams stand still for 90 minutes and play out a nil-all draw that would be enough to see them both progress to the finals. Thankfully our sport has a bit more integrity and as fanciful as a draw might seem, it appears an unlikely result. Recent form suggests Penrith should be too strong, but there's something about a soggy Lottoland with a heaving crowd bidding farewell to club greats Brett Stewart, Steve Matai and Matt Ballin that tips the scales back in Manly's favour. It'll be tight, tense and traumatic for both sets of fans, but we're tipping the Sea Eagles to get home by 8 points.