Breaking down the opening week of the NRL playoffs.
Friday, Brisbane Broncos v Gold Coast Titans
1st Elimination Final, Suncorp Stadium, 10pm
Previous clash -
Round 5 - Titans 24-16
Key stat -
Broncos have lost at Suncorp Stadium just three times this season.
There were some shaky moments along the way but the Broncos are sitting pretty with five straight wins and their big guns seem to have found some form just in time for a finals charge.
Only two teams in history have won the competition from outside the top four, the second of which was 20 years ago, so history is not on the side of the Broncos no matter how many comparisons to 2006 you may read.
There is still great talent across the park for Brisbane and their forwards in particular have been breathing fire over the last few weeks. What will be of some concern to Wayne Bennett is the indifferent kicking game of Anthony Milford and Ben Hunt, which manifested itself most notably against the Roosters, and a troubling error rate that has been a problem for several weeks. If they can fix those two ailments they can certainly do some damage in the playoffs.
They have taken the long road and nothing has come easy, but the Titans are back in the finals for the first time since 2010. The team aren't quite in top form but they deserved a bit of fortune and they'll be tricky and willing opponents.
While they're a tremendously tough and committed football side, the worry with the Titans is their ability to cut it with the elite teams in the competition. They have just two wins and a draw against top eight teams this season.
The recruitment of Jarryd Hayne will likely end up being a positive in the long run but injecting any new player into the spine this late in the season would be difficult, particularly when you go from a run-first fullback like David Mead to a more dominant playmaker in Hayne. There have been flashes of his best but if the Gold Coast are to spring an upset on the Broncos they'll need Hayne to be firing on every cylinder.
Saturday, Canberra Raiders v Cronulla Sharks
1st Qualifying Final, GIO Stadium, 8.30pm
Previous clashes -
Round 7 - Sharks 40-16, Round 22 - Raiders 30-14
Key stat -
The last time the Raiders finished in the top four was 2003 - they lost both playoff games.
Securing a home final with a thumping win over the Tigers is a major boost to Canberra's title hopes. While they're a dangerous football side wherever they go, their home record of 10 wins and two losses is the second best in the league.
Despite the back-to-back wins over Melbourne and Cronulla and a 10-match winning streak, many are quick to write the Raiders off as title contenders due to their unorthodox attacking style and admittedly patchy defence. However, when they're on there are few teams who can match them and they've been on an awful lot lately. Write them off at your own peril.
Despite their loss to Melbourne, the Sharks are still very much a premiership threat. You don't win 17 matches in a row for no reason and they have the skill, class and experience in key positions to get the job done.
What is a bit of a worry is their lack of potency in the backline. Val Holmes is a terrific finisher but on the wing he can struggle to create opportunities while Gerard Beale, Sosaia Feki and Ricky Leutele are all capable footballers who will rarely bust a game open.
The team relies heavily on Ben Barba and James Maloney to create their points and while both players have enjoyed terrific seasons thus far they'll need to become more varied in their attack if they're to capture their first premiership.
Saturday, Melbourne Storm v North Queensland Cowboys
2nd Qualifying Final, AAMI Park, 10pm
Previous clashes -
Round 10 Storm 15-14, Round 21 Storm 16-8
Key stat -
The Storm have made the playoffs 13 of the last 14 years.
All season the Storm have kept winning by playing to their strengths - excellent defence, good execution and getting the little things right. They locked up the minor premiership with a typically clinical win over the Sharks on Saturday night and assuming they down the Cowboys they won't leave Melbourne again until the grand final.
Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith continue to do Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith things. Their forward pack is perhaps the most adaptable in the competition with Jesse Bromwich, Tohu Harris and Dale Finucane all in career-best form.
The Storm are well-rounded and play a type of game that is easily replicable on any stage. With plenty of big-match experience across their line up - they have five players remaining from their 2012 premiership side - they should be regarded as title favourites.
Despite a slight dip in the post-Origin period, the Cowboys have timed their run to perfection and come into the finals in fourth spot on the back of three-straight wins.
If you've read any articles about the Cowboys this season you'll know that no team has won back to back titles since the 1992-93 Broncos but North Queensland have a better shot at repeating than most, especially if they can down the Storm this weekend and lock in a preliminary final in Townsville.
Johnathan Thurston is doing all kinds of Johnathan Thurston things, Michael Morgan has hit his straps following an indifferent couple of weeks on his return from injury and Jason Taumalolo is stating his case as the best forward in the world. This is a team with tremendous experience, confidence and continuity and they're a real threat of winning the whole damn thing again.
Sunday, Penrith Panthers v Canterbury Bulldogs
2nd Elimination Final, September 11, Allianz Stadium, 6pm
Previous clashes -
Round 2 Bulldogs 18-16
Key stat -
The Bulldogs never spent anytime outside the top eight season season.
Penrith are hotter than hot right now with a strong winning streak and a young, exciting core unit that possesses great skill, confidence and ability. Despite having a back-rower and an 18-year-old in the halves the Panthers have managed to clamber into sixth spot on the ladder.
Having said that, it's important to take the Panthers' recent winning run with a grain of salt. They have beaten a listless Roosters side, the lowly Knights, a Tigers team that didn't show up before toppling the Titans at home (by far their most impressive win in the last month) and eviscerating a Manly side who were already planning Mad Monday.
That's not to say the Panthers are cannon fodder - they play the Bulldogs this week and given Canterbury's recent form they're in with a real shot of moving on to week two - but they do have some defensive issues, they make a lot of mistakes and they have several key players who are taking part in their first finals series. They're flawed, but dangerous.
On the surface, things look great for Canterbury. They've made the finals for the fifth year in a row! Everyone is healthy! Good times.
But then you remember that they had a top four spot at their mercy a couple of weeks ago, only have four wins over top eight teams this season and just one in the final 10 weeks of the regular season, can't seem to score points and play as though they don't understand what they're good at or how to showcase their strengths.
The Bulldogs play a simple style of football that is entirely based around their forward pack and for that reason they could snap into gear apropos of nothing and suddenly be the mean, brutish destroyers who can dominate the middle and scrap enough points together to be dangerous. They did this in 2014 with an inferior roster and went all the way to the grand final. That's not to say it will happen, but it certainly could and despite their recent slump you'd be a fool to take them lightly.