Cowboys v Broncos: Five key points
Cowboys wait to learn their fate, Bronco Boyd's injury scare, Brisbane's defence rediscovers its grit and the Hess express runs out of steam.
Cowboys' anxious wait to learn finals fate
Coming into Round 26 in seventh position, the Cowboys dropped to eighth when Brisbane scored their 10th point of the night in the 21st minute and after their 10-point loss must now wait until Saturday night at least to learn their finals fate.
The scenario could have been a whole lot more complicated had Cowboys winger Kyle Feldt not scored in the corner with the final play of the game but now their finals hopes rest on whether the Sea Eagles and Dragons can both post wins.
Level with Manly on points differential, the Cowboys can be guaranteed a finals berth if Penrith win at Lottoland on Saturday evening while Manly would need to win by at least 38 points for the Cowboys to be able to leapfrog the Panthers.
A Manly win would leave North Queensland's fate in the hands of the Dragons, who can finish as high as seventh with a win over the Bulldogs on Sunday but a loss would see both Manly and North Queensland advance.
For 72 hours only, Queensland's north will have a higher than normal proportion of footy fans cheering for the Panthers and Bulldogs.
Boyd sends scare through Broncos camp
The Broncos' preparations for their finals campaign suffered a major blow with fullback and captain Darius Boyd suffering a slight hamstring strain in the final minute of the first half on Thursday night.
After one of his poorest displays perhaps in his career last week the expectation was that Boyd would bounce back against the Cowboys and for 39 minutes he was doing just that, charging into the Cowboys defence and linking well with his outside men.
But a Hail Mary kick by Cowboys five-eighth Michael Morgan on the final play of the first half forced Boyd to turn quickly and he immediately grabbed at his hamstring.
He failed to return for the second half and while the immediate diagnosis was that it is only a minor strain Boyd's fitness will be a point of conjecture for the next week at least.
Rampaging forward Tevita Pangai Jnr also failed to finish the game, receiving treatment on a hamstring injury that kept him from playing against Parramatta a week ago.
Broncos defence finds its fury again
At the same time exactly a week earlier the Broncos had leaked 24 points against the Eels but it took the Cowboys 33 minutes before they could breach a Brisbane line defending with far greater energy and intent.
Inspired by a defensive refresher from former Broncos legend Peter Ryan during the week, the Brisbane defence swarmed whenever the Cowboys tried to attack their line and it took a repeat set and a terrific pass from Michael Morgan for Gavin Cooper to score his side's first try of the night.
Even without their captain marshalling the defensive line the Broncos withstood plenty of Cowboy attack early in the second half in a sure sign that they learned their lesson.
The Cowboys camped inside Brisbane's half for the majority of the second term but were unable to break the visitors' defensive resolve until the final play of the game as the Broncos moved into second position with a timely confidence boost.
Variety key to Broncos' potency
If you don't know who will be the one firing the shot how can you hope to defend it? The loss of hooker Andrew McCullough threatened to derail Brisbane's finals charge but what it has done is allow Wayne Bennett to unleash a four-person attacking prong that can strike from anywhere on the park at any time.
Even the loss of captain Darius Boyd at half-time wasn't terminal as Benji Marshall came into the fray and Kodi Nikorima shifted to fullback with Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford all taking their turn at first receiver during the course of the game.
Milford was sublime in the opening half hour, Nikorima shrugged off a couple of quiet weeks with an exciting display, Hunt played the entire 80 minutes at hooker and put Adam Blair across for a crucial try along with a well-executed short drop-out 12 minutes from full-time and Marshall showed some of that old spark to keep the Cowboys guessing.
Few teams use the ball better than the Broncos and when you have got so many instinctive footballers on the field at the same time you're always going to be hard to contain.
Hess express runs out of steam
It's worth reminding ourselves that Coen Hess only turned 21 a couple of weeks ago but the mammoth Cowboys back-rower has struggled to have the same kind of impact that he did at the start of the season since the end of the Origin campaign.
Where his charges in the first couple of months seemed next to impossible to stop – resulting in six tries in the first six weeks – his runs against the Broncos on Thursday night never really caused the visitors too many issues.