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Newcastle are closing in on their first back-to-back finals appearances since 2002-03 but their journey towards sudden-death footy this year could be the least convincing in the modern era.

Their points differential sits at -137, the fourth-worst in the league, and yet they sit in seventh place on the ladder and are in the box seat to secure a finals spot.

The only team which has made the finals in the NRL era with a worse for-and-against record was the Raiders of 2002, whose differential was -170 after 24 matches with 10 wins, 13 losses and a draw.

However, this record is an anomaly as they were elevated into eighth after the Bulldogs were stripped of 37 competition points and the minor premiership due to salary cap breaches.

Newcastle slumped to as low as 14th in June with a 5-9 record but have sprung to life in the past month to enter the top eight for the first time since March following their gritty win over the Sharks.

Bulldogs v Knights - Round 23

It's a remarkable result for Adam O'Brien's side given they are ranked 15th in attack after 21 rounds this season behind Brisbane (371) and North Queensland (388), who are languishing towards the bottom of the ladder.

This week's opponents Canterbury are the only team to have scored fewer points than Newcastle but the next three weeks present a golden opportunity for the Knights to improve their poor differential.

But how far they go into the finals series will depend on how well their key men combine in the next three weeks of the regular season with a run home that includes the Bulldogs, Titans and Broncos.

"The worrying thing ... it was a rock-hard surface [to attack]," Andrew Johns said in his preview for the Knights website when asked about the side's struggles last week against Cronulla.

"This week against the Bulldogs, they just have to make a statement. If they get up by 12 they have to get to 40."

Heavy defeats to the Storm (48-4) and Roosters (28-8) whacked the Knights last month but O'Brien's side has found some sort of form – albeit unconvincing – to stay in the finals race.

The Knights can easily argue their lack of spine stability has played a monumental part in their inability to pile on points in games this season with Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce missing for a large chunk of the year.

When asked what he liked about the win over Cronulla last week, O'Brien quipped "the two [competition] points" before commenting on the spine combination of Pearce, Ponga, Jake Clifford and Jayden Brailey.

"When we got an early unexpected result [against Cronulla] we got panicky and tried to force our hand and went away from stuff we looked at earlier in the week," O'Brien said.

"We tried to move the ball a lot instead of really earning the right. I think it will get better the more time we spend together the better it will get."

Despite losing Daniel Saifiti (knee) and Tyson Frizell (suspension) this week, O'Brien will bank on his spine to combine again and secure a fourth win on the trot.

"We've been inconsistent, the team list has been really inconsistent so we're starting to get some consistency with our playing squad although losing Daniel and Tyson this week isn't ideal for us," O'Brien said.

"We need to make continual improvement to our game."

Match Highlights: Sharks v Knights

Statistically, and it should come as no great surprise, when Pearce and Ponga are on the field the Knights score more points.

In 2021, O'Brien has had his first-string spine just twice for two wins – a 38-0 victory over the Cowboys in round 16 and the side's recent 16-14 win over the Sharks.

For the past two seasons, Ponga and Pearce's presence on the paddock has led to the side winning 14 of 23 games since O'Brien took over last year for a 60.1 percent win rate.

The side's scoring ability lifts to 21.6 per game when both are on the field, a rise from an average of 15.2 when either or both miss a game during the season.

Newcastle wobble when both Pearce and Ponga are missing for a 20 percent win rate and paltry 14 points scored per outing, while without their first-choice halfback alone the side has managed just three wins from eight starts.

Their third match as a full-strength spine will come on Saturday against a Bulldogs outfit which has struggled to find points for the past three seasons to rank 16th, 15th 16th previously. 

Clifford dismissed suggestions the side was guilty of playing too structured and remained confident points will flow before the finals.

"I do see a lot of improvement with our attack and fine-tuning, getting our structures the way we want them every week and how we prepare," he said.

"Myself, Junior, KP and Brails are all going to be working on that and making sure we're connected and taking our opportunities when they come.

Return of Ponga and Pearce has Knights primed for finals tilt

"We'd like to play a bit more off the cuff when it starts getting a bit quicker and ruck speed comes in.

"We want to find our 1, 6, 7 and 9 when we can and improve that a bit more, try and find K a bit more if we can."

Knights enforcer Mitch Barnett was also confident the side's attack could fire in time for the finals. 

"Little areas we can help ourselves with the footy but I thought defensively we let them get a roll on early on and made a few easy metres," he said.

"Just a few things with the ball we can correct those things to have a bit more juice in the tank when attacking down in those good areas."

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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