The Panthers recorded a 22-0 shut out of the Cowboys at BlueBet Stadium to ensure they go into the Origin period with a four point lead on the Telstra Premiership ladder.
However, the Cowboys confirmed they are genuine contenders with a gutsy defensive effort in which they made 425 tackles compared to just 318 by the premiers.
Lock Reuben Cotter made 63 tackles on his own, while rookie sensation Jeremiah Nanai and hooker Reece Robson made 51 each.
All but two members of Penrith's starting line-up carried the ball for more than 100 metres, headed by prop James Fisher-Harris (220m) and fullback Dylan Edwards (240m).
After leading 16-0 at halftime, it took Penrith until the 71st minute to post the only try of the second half but their defence was superb and the third placed Cowboys had few scoring opportunities.
Both teams are expected to lose large contingents of players to Origin duty next week, with North Queensland coach Todd Payten endorsing Cotter and Nanai to join the likes of Val Holmes, Coen Hess and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow in the Maroons squad.
The Panthers may have as many as seven player in the Blues squad but five-eighth Jarome Luai is likely to come under scrutiny from the match review committee for a shoulder charge on Scott Drinkwater late in the match.
Penrith second-rower Viliame Kikau, whose personal dual with Nanai was worth the price of admission alone, also faces an anxious wait for the judiciary charges after being placed on report twice.
Match: Panthers v Cowboys
Round 12 -
Venue: BlueBet Stadium, Penrith
- The Panthers set the tone for the match early, with Isaah Yeo stepping out of an attempted tackle by Peta Hiku to score in just the fourth minute after running onto a pass from hooker Api Koroisau near the Cowboys line.
Isaah Yeo punches through to score
- Valentine Holmes appeared set to post an immediate reply when he burst into the clear and raced 80 metres before being tackled by Izack Tago.
- North Queensland's defence was under immense pressure in the opening stages as they defended 22 consecutive tackles in their own 20-metre zone.
- Viliame Kikau was denied a try after Scott Drinkwater spilled a Nathan Cleary bomb but the Cowboys fullback was struck high by Tago.
Nanai's a try saver too
- Boom second-rower Jeremiah Nanai held Cleary up over the tryline and Tago bombed a try when his elbow scraped the touchline in-goal.
- However, the weight of possession eventually took its toll when Dylan Edwards crossed in the 19th minute.
Edwards finishes a long sweeping try
- Star winger Brian To’o scored his first try of the season in the 27th minute after finishing a sweeping movement featuring Yeo, Cleary and Edwards to give the Panthers a 16-0 lead.
- North Queensland's best scoring opportunity came just five minutes before halftime but To'o and centre Stephen Crichton combined to bundle Cowboys five-eighth Tom Dearden into touch just before the tryline.
These Panthers hunt in a pack
- The Cowboys were again forced to defend for much of the second half but their tryline remained secure until the 71st minute when Jarome Luai put winger Taylan May over with a long cut out ball.
You don't stop May from there
Play of the game
Valentine Holmes appeared set to score in the sixth minute when he broke through the Panthers defensive line inside North Queensland's 20-metre zone and raced into the clear only to be pulled down short by rookie centre Izack Tago. The Panthers posted three unanswered tries but if Holmes had scored the outcome may have been different.
Holmes breaks the line
What they said
"I'm disappointed we didn't fire our best shot but weren't allowed to at various stages and completing at 59 percent. But in saying that I really enjoyed some of our defensive periods. We showed some desperation and resilience. We walk away knowing we can beat them if we get our fair share of possession. There were moments in the first half I thought we really worried them with the ball, we just couldn't find the patience with the last pass." - Cowboys coach Todd Payten.
Cowboys: Round 12
"The first half we started really well and left out a few out there but all in all it was a solid first half. The boys felt pretty comfortable, the second half we couldn't really capitalise on field position. It was hard to build, we were doing some good stuff but couldn't get to the next play. I was happy with the defensive stand in the end." - Panthers coach Ivan Cleary.
Panthers: Round 12
The Cowboys are again on the road to meet the Titans on the Gold Coast next Thursday night, while the Panthers host the Bulldogs at BlueBet Stadium on Friday night.
Both teams are set to be missing key players due to Origin commitments, with Penrith expected to have the biggest representation in the NSW team to be named on Sunday night and the Cowboys to provide a large contingent to Queensland.
Penrith strike second-rower Viliame Kikau was placed on report twice - for a lifting tackle on Peta Hiku and high shot on Jeremiah Nanai and will be waiting for the match review committee to announce charges from the match on Saturday.
Kikau tickles Townsend's ribs
North Queensland coach Todd Payten hopes to welcome back captain Jason Taumalolo from a MCL injury for the Titans clash, but star winger Kyle Feldt (knee) remains unavailable.
Prop Tom Gilbert left the field in the first half with a hip injury but later returned after reportedly having a pain killing injection and will be assessed during the week.