Rampaging back-rower Coen Hess says the Cowboys are well placed five weeks out from the finals, despite Saturday's 24-16 loss to the Sydney Roosters.
North Queensland led 16-6 at the break but were chased down in the second half by the Roosters, and now face a strong Melbourne outfit on Friday night in Townsville.
It was the first time in six weeks the side had lost a game without Johnathan Thurston, but despite the defeat Hess said their performance showed they could still compete with the best even without the champion halfback.
"We knew that this fortnight was going to be tough and present a challenge for us to see where we're at," Hess told NRL.com.
"The loss was disappointing but to match it with a top-two team in the Roosters and away from home where we've struggled in recent years, even with JT, shows how far we've come.
"We've got to be mentally tougher."
The Roosters turned it on after half-time to claw their way back into the contest and create a finals-like finish with 22 unanswered points.
"It was a very fast and physical game, they came out in the second half and blew us off the park," Hess said.
"Their big men were very hard to contain and their backs played off that.
"They sparked up their running game and just ran harder. As defenders we could feel it and couldn't stop them. When a side is completing at 100 per cent in the second half, sometimes you just have to give credit to the opposition where it's due."
The loss of Thurston to a long-term injury is new territory for the team – something that has forced everyone within the side to reevaluate their own individual contributions.
"The biggest thing is Morgo (Michael Morgan) has taken it upon himself to step up and formed a combination with Te Maire [Martin] as quick as we hoped they would," Hess said.
"I think everyone has had to grow another leg and go to another level and as players we all understand that."
Paul Green's men have arguably one of the toughest runs home with matches against the Storm, Panthers, Sharks, Wests Tigers and the Broncos.
While the race for the top four is still open, Hess believes any side could push for a grand final berth with the unpredictability of the competition this season.
"You give yourself every right to be there come grand final time if you're in the top four, it makes the road a lot easier but I think it won't matter this season with all the results of late," he said.
"As long as we're in the top eight I think we take confidence in our own ability to get to the grand final."
Despite having just 27 first-grade matches to his name, the 20-year-old has been in more major games than most with two Origin fixtures and three finals appearances in 2016 under his belt.
An enthusiastic Hess said he now understood the mental hurdle for the game's top players in backing up from a taxing Origin series.
"I've found it tough but that's all part of it, you're expected to back up and bring something back to the club," he said.
"I learnt a lot over the Origin period and feel as though I'm already bringing some parts back to the Cowboys.
"Playing alongside those elite players like Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk has been a dream come true but when it comes to game plans in Melbourne and that type of thing, it's all different.
"We need limit their opportunities and take a leaf out of their book come Friday."
First published on NRL.com.