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Widely written off as finals contenders after a dismal first half of the season, the Panthers have well and truly come good with six straight wins.

The news only gets better this week at Penrith with Nathan Cleary set to return alongside James Maloney in the halves.

The Dragons are a team that has most footy followers scratching their heads as to why they don't have more wins with the roster they've got.

With so many Origin players the Dragons should be higher up the ladder, but they've underachieved and pretty much have to approach every game like it's a grand final for the rest of the season.

The Rundown

Team news

Panthers: Nathan Cleary returns to a team chasing its seventh consecutive win. Jarome Luai moves to the bench. Kaide Ellis and Stephen Crichton were omitted 24 hours before kick-off while Hame Sele and Jed Cartwright were the last two to drop out an hour before game time.

Dragons: Ben Hunt has been rested and replaced at halfback by Darren Nicholls, while James Graham is named to start at lock in his first game since breaking his leg in round 11. Blake Lawrie shifts to prop for Jeremy Latimore (knee). Patrick Kaufusi and Josh Kerr are the new faces on the bench. Jacob Host and Jason Saab were the men omitted from the extended squad on Thursday. Reece Robson and Tristan Sailor dropped out an hour before kick-off.

Key match-up

James Maloney and Corey Norman locked horns in Origin III and it was Maloney who took the spoils. The two playmakers will have a big say in who wins on Friday night. Maloney will be well aware the Dragons are desperate for a win and Norman would love to gain whatever revenge he can after the Blues got home in a thriller in the Origin decider.

For the Panthers to win

Maloney has shouldered a heavy workload lately and will welcome Cleary's return. Coach Ivan Cleary has copped criticism at various stages of the season and questions were asked when players wanted out. But he has the Panthers humming along nicely after a rocky start and won't change the game plan too much on Friday.

For the Dragons to win

The Dragons haven't been the same ever since they lost Gareth Widdop and then James Graham. But that's not an excuse because Paul McGregor has plenty of rep players on the roster and some fairly handy young talent. Norman needs to be better at consistently creating attacking options, while the Dragons also have to tighten up defensively.

Brett Kimmorley says

The Dragons are leaking a lot of points of late. Origin can expose any weakness you have in your roster and I think that is what we are seeing with them. As for the Panthers, Ivan Cleary has the team he wants and I expect them to keep going with the roll they are on. Panthers by 8

Stat Attack

The Panthers have missed more tackles (645) and conceded more penalties (130) than any team in the NRL in 2019. James Maloney heads the individual list for most missed tackles (91) and most penalties (21).

And another thing ...

The Dragons head to Penrith on Friday with their season on the line and they probably haven't forgotten what happened the last time they visited Panthers Stadium. In their only meeting last year, the Panthers turned an 8-0 half-time lead into a convincing 28-2 victory over the Dragons and they'll be looking to emulate that on Friday.