The Panthers have dropped just one game all season and have back-to-back premierships firmly in their sights while the Cowboys have risen from the ashes of 2021 to give themselves a legitimate shot at the club's second title.
Todd Payten's men boast the third best attack in the NRL behind the Storm and Panthers but it's their steel in defence that is most pleasing the coach, conceding just 12 points per game compared to 31 per game in 2021.
A trip to Penrith on a frosty Friday night where a frosty reception is guaranteed provides the litmus test the Cowboys need to see exactly where they fit into premiership conversations.
Panthers: No changes to the squad which downed the Roosters. Since star winger Brian To'o returned from injury in round nine, the premiers have had the luxury of rolling out the same starting 13 against the Eels, Storm, Roosters and now the Cowboys. Charlie Staines is the 18th man.
Cowboys: A couple of forced changes for the visitors with Kyle Feldt (knee) out for six weeks and Jason Taumalolo (knee) also sidelined. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow replaces Feldt on the wing while Coen Hess will start at lock. Jake Granville and Jamayne Taunoa-Brown are the new men on the interchange. No changes when the squad was finalised 60 minutes before kick-off, with Connelly Lemuelu the 18th man.
Nathan Cleary v Chad Townsend: The two generals are surrounded by quality players in good form but when all is said and done the winner of this battle most likely takes home the two competition points. Cleary's return after shoulder surgery has been seamless, the champion No.7 racking up nine try assists, 11 forced dropouts, five line break assists and 80 points in eight games, The wily Townsend is proving one of the buys of the year up north with 13 try assists, six forced dropouts and 400 kicking metres per game in 11 matches.
The Panthers and Cowboys sit in the top three in the competition alongside Parramatta for set completion. The Eels lead the way with an 83 per cent completion rate through the first 11 rounds followed by the Panthers (81 per cent) and Cowboys (80 per cent).
Story first published on NRL.com