The Penrith Panthers finals hunt appears in freefall after losing 24-10 to the North Queensland Cowboys in Townsville.
Penrith have now lost two games on the trot and are stranded outside the top eight on 22 points, meaning they will likely need to beat the Sydney Roosters next weekend to keep their post-season hopes alive.
"We didn't start the game well enough," lamented Panthers coach Ivan Cleary.
"Too many fundamental errors which put us behind the eight ball, two weeks in a row."
North Queensland's finals hopes might be long gone but the win provides some consolation following a torrid week highlighted by retirement-bound prop Matt Scott being hospitalised for a mild stroke.
"We got a text from Lauren (Scott's wife) and she said he took a lot of effort but he managed to watch it," said Cowboys coach Paul Green.
"He went through some pain to watch it, but it was good to see he watched it and I hope that gives him a lift."
The Cowboys made the ideal start when centre Tom Opacic set up winger Kyle Feldt with a flick pass in the eighth minute.
The contest then resembled an arm wrestle until an acrobatic finish by winger Brian To'o got Penrith on the board eight minutes before the break at 1300SMILES Stadium.
North Queensland responded soon after when rookie wing Murray Taulagi scored his maiden NRL try thanks to some impressive lead up work from veteran fullback and wing turned centre Jordan Kahu.
The former Kiwis international steamed on to a kick, broke a tackle and then offloaded for the 20-year-old to notch a memorable four-pointer a minute before the interval.
North Queensland extended their 12-4 halftime buffer when Feldt caught the Panthers defence napping from a 20m restart and although Isaah Yeo completed a chip and chase to bridge the gap a bullocking run from Jason Taumalolo ensured a five-game losing streak would be snapped with nine minutes remaining.
North Queensland next host the resurgent Bulldogs on Thursday in the last match to be played at 1300 Smiles Stadium while Penrith face an ominous task against the reigning premiers next Saturday.
Australian Associated Press