Trailing by 16 points after an Ezra Mam hat-trick had put the Broncos on track for their first title in 17 years, Cleary took the game by the scruff of the neck to ensure the Panthers would emulate the Eels of 1981-82-83 with a three-peat.
Cleary put Moses Leota over for a try with 17 minutes to play and then came up with a 40-20 before scoring the final try in the 77th minute to leave the Broncos shellshocked and the Panthers faithful in raptures.
The champion No.7 then capped his night by becoming just the third player to win the Clive Churchill Medal for a second time, joining Brad Clyde and Billy Slater in that exclusive club.
In a frantic opening it was Broncos centre Herbie Farnworth coming up with an early error to hand the Panthers field position but a brilliant bomb defusal by Kotoni Staggs helped his team come away.
Broncos hooker Billy Walters then produced a mammoth 40-20 kick out of dummy half but the opportunity was lost when the ball was spun left and Jesse Arthars slipped and went into touch.
When Selwyn Cobbo dropped the ball deep in his own territory the Broncos again found themselves under the pump but their defence again stood strong until a poor play-the-ball by Staggs in the 16th minute invited the Panthers into the red zone and first points followed in bizarre fashion.
A short dropout by Adam Reynolds in the 18th minute was batted back by Farnworth and rather than his Broncos teammates collecting the ball it was Panthers hooker Mitch Kenny who pounced for his first try of the season. Stephen Crichton converted to give the premiers a 6-0 lead.
When Reece Walsh was caught in goal and Reynolds' dropout failed to go 10 metres, the Panthers extended their lead to 8-0 courtesy of a Cleary penalty goal.
Come the 39th minute and the Broncos struck back when Thomas Flegler powered over from close range having only returned to the field three minutes after passing a head injury assessment. Reynolds converted to make the half-time score 8-6 to the Panthers.
On the back of a couple of enormous charges from Flegler the Broncos made the ideal start to the second half when Mam split the Panthers open and raced 50 metres to score wide out. Reynolds converted to give the Broncos a 12-8 lead.
After Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai left the field holding his shoulder in the 52nd minute the Broncos extended their lead through a second try for Mam, who put some fancy footwork on Isaah Yeo and Cleary and raced away to make it 18-8 to Kevin Walters' men.
Two minutes later Mam had a hat-trick after Walsh sliced through and found the No.6 in support as the Broncos turned the game on its head with a stunning burst.
Trailing by 16 points the Panthers hit back when Cleary found a hole and set up Leota for a try in the 63rd minute before the champion No.7 came up with a 40-20 to set up another opportunity but a superb last-ditch tackle by Kobe Hetherington on Leota kept Brisbane's line intact.
A mistake by Pat Carrigan then opened the door for the Panthers again and Crichton made it four tries in four consecutive grand finals and the premiers were back in business, trailing 24-20.
When Reynolds put a dropout out on the full in the 72nd minute the Panthers had a shot at levelling up but Cobbo plucked a Crichton kick out of the air and the danger was averted.
With the crowd of 81,947 at fever pitch the Panthers remarkably hit the front 26-24 when Cleary took the line on from 10 metres out and put the ball down for the four-pointer that capped the greatest night of his career.
The Panthers' comeback from 16 points down was the biggest in grand final history, eclipsing the Storm's effort to come from 14-0 down to win the 1999 decider against the Dragons.
- Broncos prop Thomas Flegler left the field in the 23rd minute for a HIA which he passed and returned to the field in the 36th minute.
- Panthers hooker Mitch Kenny's first-half try was just the second of his 83-game career.
- Broncos prop Payne Haas had six runs for 70 metres and made 22 tackles in a powerhouse opening stint of 36 minutes.
- Panthers prop James Fisher-Harris had 11 runs for 95 metres and broke six tackles in his opening 33-minute stint. He finished with 153 metres and eight tackle breaks.
- The Panthers completed 18 of 19 sets in the opening half compared to 13 of 21 by the Broncos. The champions finished the night with an incredible 37 of 38 sets completed at 97 per cent.
- Panthers fullback Dylan Edwards was immense with 296 running metres and six tackle breaks.
- Broncos centre Kotoni Staggs played his 100th NRL game.
- Panthers skipper Isaah Yeo left the field in the 57th minute for a HIA and was followed by back-rower Scott Sorensen in the 59th minute. Both men passed and were able to return.
- Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary produced a 40-20 kick in the 65th minute.
- Panthers centre Stephen Crichton has scored a try in four consecutive grand finals.
- Broncos centre Herbie Farnworth ran for 179 metres and had eight tackle breaks.
- The Panthers have won their past nine finals matches.
Plays of the Game
Having steadied the ship in the shadow of half-time with a try to Thomas Flegler, the Broncos hit the front in the 45th minute when Ezra Mam produced one of the great grand final tries. Mam took the ball on halfway and left Lindsay Smith and Tago in his wake with some dazzling footwork before out-pacing Dylan Edwards on the run to the line. The 20-year-old then added a second and a third in the space to complete a hat-trick in the space of 10 sizzling minutes.
What They Said
"I've never felt so under the pump in a game as we were in that second half tonight. I thought the Broncos deserved to be in the lead but over the course of the last few years we have built enough belief that when we get our game on, good things will happen, but I was a little worried midway through the second half. One thing I never doubt is the boys' ability to keep fighting and there was just enough time to make them get nervous. I can't remember the last time we had to come back like that and win. The 2020 grand final comes to mind. We ran out of time that night but tonight was pretty amazing. I thought Nathan looked really clear and the lessons he has learned gave him the clarity to be able to go 'now it is backs to the wall, now I'm going to go after it'." - Panthers coach Ivan Cleary
"There's no emotion in the sheds, it's very quiet. It's hard to get your head around what actually happened. I feel for all the players in there that gave so much but it wasn't enough in the end. I think the whole stadium thought we had done enough [when Ezra scored his hat-trick]. Right now it's a pretty empty feeling. I watched the AFL grand final yesterday and thought that's not a nice way to lose [for the Lions] and here we are sitting here in the same situation. That second period there, for 20 minutes, that's the Broncos that I know and that's where we'll get to, we'll do that for 80, but we're not there yet. But when we do we'll win premierships and that's what it's about. We're not there yet but we're a lot closer now than we were 12 months ago." - Broncos coach Kevin Walters
A host of stars from both sides will front in the Pacific Championship Tests which kick off on October 14 with the Kangaroos facing Samoa in Townsville. For those not playing internationals there's a well-earned break before the 2024 pre-season launches in November.
Story first published on NRL.com