Panthers coach Ivan Cleary believed the team had "another gear or two" to find if they're to challenge for the title after overcoming South Sydney 25-12 on Friday night.
A kicking masterclass from Nathan Cleary and two pieces of magic from Paul Momirovski helped end the Rabbitohs' 10-game winning streak ahead of a likely rematch in week one of the finals.
Having flogged Souths 56-12 in Dubbo in round 11 the Panthers were made to work much harder at Suncorp Stadium.
Again, Cleary had his fingerprints all over the victory.
In his second game back from a shoulder injury, Cleary tormented former teammate Josh Mansour in the air as the Panthers flexed their premiership muscle to stay within reach of Melbourne on the ladder.
Match: Panthers v Rabbitohs
Round 23 -
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
The battle between second and third on the Telstra Premiership ladder lived up to expectations with the Panthers forced to come from behind after South Sydney jumped to a 12-0 lead.
Cleary's trademark floating bombs had Mansour and Bunnies fullback Latrell Mitchell bamboozled in the second half after Momirovski set up two tries through his own efforts off the boot to swing the momentum.
Mansour left the field late in the match after allowing a third kick to bounce before being collected by an accidental knee from Jarome Luai. It was an unhappy night against his former club.
The Panthers mentor said it wasn't the plan to target Mansour.
"You always try and test the back three, once he [Mansour] looked a bit shaky we kept going there," Cleary said.
Cleary starts and finishes some Panthers perfection
"Poor old 'Sauce' didn't have his best night there. It was smart to keep going back there.
"That's what Nath does, that's why he's so important to the team.
"We've got a lot of results out of his kicks in that second half and were able to dominate field position and possession."
The second half drained the Rabbitohs, who came out firing through the likes of Damien Cook and Cameron Murray but failed to remain on top throughout the match when under pressure.
Adam Reynolds produced one of the best 40/20 kicks ever seen to help the Rabbitohs strike twice but the Panthers hit the accelerator when Stephen Crichton switched to fullback following an unfortunate head knock to Dylan Edwards.
Momirovski's shift to the wing paid immediate dividends with the utility providing two clever kicks back infield to set up Cleary for Penrith's opening try in the 31st minute and Crichton for the second on the stroke of halftime.
A controlling effort from Cleary's side in the second half showed signs of the same side who proved near unstoppable at the start of the year before the representative period and injuries halted their momentum.
Walker and Gagai combine on that lethal left
"There's definitely an improvement in us," Cleary said.
"We've got a couple of key players to come back in. From a character point of view it was good for us tonight.
"To be only 12-10 down at half-time was a pretty good effort. I think most teams lately would've been down 30 points with Souths in that kind of form.
"We needed to fix some things up after halftime and we did ... being able to dominate field position and possession.
"I don't have any great concerns but feel like there's still a gear or two left in us."
Mid-season recruit Tevita Pangai jnr made a successful club debut for the side in another positive for Cleary, who is expected to welcome back James Fisher-Harris next week.
Pangai jnr got through 28 minutes in the middle after eight weeks between matches and following his recent withdrawal from the side due to personal reasons.
"It will take a few games for him to get used to things," Cleary said.
"The last couple of weeks, you can't get any tumultuous than that. He should only get better."