The difference between Broncos and Cowboys in 2018
The repeated ability to produce match-winning clutch plays when the game is on the line has been a feature of Brisbane's surge into the top eight in 2018.
In contrast, the North Queensland Cowboys have consistently failed to put games to bed in tight matches.
If you were to look for a reason why the two Queensland powerhouse clubs have had such contrasting seasons then look no further than the massive gulf in that key area.
The reasons teams win and lose games are not down solely to what happens in the closing stages, but more often than not those moments determine which team claims the competition points. The Broncos have 18 points and the Cowboys, premiership favourites at the start of the season, just eight points after 15 rounds.
Brisbane’s eight wins have been by nine points or less. By comparison, eight of the Cowboys’ 11 defeats have been by 10 points or less.
What is so hard to fathom is the likes of Johnathan Thurston, Michael Morgan and Kyle Feldt have a history of being able to conjure up wins with decisive plays.
This year that ability has deserted the Cowboys. Coach Paul Green has scratched his head as to why but despite changing his line-up, they have not found their groove.
The Broncos have been well served by their energetic and youthful rising stars when games have hung in the balance. This season they have produced one winning play after another.
In round two in the 24-20 win over the Cowboys it was a massive defensive effort at the death by Tevita Pangai jnr to deflect prop Scott Bolton into the goalpost pad that proved decisive.
The following week Jamayne Isaako was Brisbane's "iceman", landing four penalties from four attempts and a field goal to snare a 9-7 golden point victory over the Wests Tigers.
It was a late Isaako penalty from wide out in normal time to level the scores that spoke volumes for the NRL rookie's ability to step up under pressure.
In the round-nine 22-20 victory over the Bulldogs, a rampaging Joe Ofahengaue scored under the posts to level the scores in the 74th minute. Right on full time- James Roberts demanded the ball, put up a towering bomb which eluded Canterbury and led to a penalty being awarded for a push in the back on Darius Boyd as he chased through.
A fortnight later with Brisbane trailing the Roosters 22-16 in the 73rd minute, Roberts scored a mesmerising 70m try out of nothing before Isaako weaved his way through tired defenders in the dying stages to seal the deal.
At Cronulla in round 15, winger Corey Oates break a 16-16 deadlock in the 69th minute with one of the great finishes in the corner that you will ever see.
And the Broncos' 24-20 round-eight win over the Rabbitohs in Sydney was memorable not so much for a clutch play at the end but for a 20-minute cameo by teenage giant Payne Haas in the second half. Haas entered the fray with the Broncos trailing but his energy and punch proved to be a lightning rod that electrified his teammates.
Contrast all of those key moments with the Cowboys' inability to ice the cake in similar circumstances. Johnathan Thurston served up a match-winning opportunity for Bolton on a plate in round two but the prop fluffed his lines.
The Cowboys led 19-18 in the final minute against the Rabbitohs in round 11 but conceded an 80th-minute penalty in front of the posts to lose. The following week they missed two field goal attempts late in the game against the Storm. Cameron Munster nailed his shot to give Melbourne a 7-6 victory.
The narrow round eight and round 10 losses to the Raiders and Wests Tigers respectively were examples of the Cowboys being well in the game but lacking mojo when it counted. They had an 87 per cent completion rate in the 22-12 loss to the Warriors in round five but their final-play options came up empty on many occasions.
Whether all these magic moments provided by the next generation of Broncos stars lead to the ultimate glory at the end of the season is yet to be decided. More will certainly be needed from halves Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima and the Broncos will also need to learn how to control and dominate a game from start to finish if they are to go deep into September.
But based on what we have seen, Brisbane's young guns will only gain more confidence from what they have already achieved when under the pump.
The Cowboys' finals hopes are already over and you can partly put that down to a lack of creativity, polish and energy when the game is on the line. That is from a team stacked with representative stars and NRL veterans.