North Queensland's quest to feature in their seventh consecutive finals series has taken a hit with the club's injury toll climbing after their 24-16 loss to the Panthers.
Cowboys centre Justin O'Neill is expected to miss the remainder of the season with a nasty elbow injury, while Michael Morgan will require concussion protocol testing throughout the week to face Cronulla in a week's time.
The loss of both Maroons representatives left Paul Green's side with 15 fit players for the second half against Penrith and the visitors were then forced to bring Jake Granville and Scott Bolton from the field for HIA assessments.
Regular back-rowers Coen Hess and Ethan Lowe found themselves playing in the centres, while prop-forward John Asiata was again required to slot into the halfback role.
Despite the reshuffle, the Cowboys managed to fight until the death with Penrith being held out on a number of occasions late in the game.
"We had our chances to really nail the game there but just ran out of gas in the middle there and that was probably a reflection of the changes that were made," Green said after the game.
"Blokes playing out of position but it was a courageous effort and we hung in there.
"They didn't roll over and kept competing. I was really proud of the character and showed it plenty of times. While you've got that you're a chance in any game you play."
Cowboys fullback Lachlan Coote was also in trouble during the second half after falling awkwardly in a tackle but remained on the paddock.
"I thought I was going to have to bring him off too," Green said.
"He got bent over awkwardly and lost a bit of power in his back or legs apparently. I'm not sure what happened there but he seems alright [in the sheds now]."
With clashes against Cronulla, Wests Tigers and the Broncos to come, the prospects of chasing a top four position now appears unlikely with St George Illawarra the only side set to put pressure on the Cowboys in eighth position.
"We'll be right," Green replied.
"With four games to go we needed to win [tonight] and need to win one at the very least and there is three games to go so we're still hanging in there.
"We're not done yet but it feels like things have been going against us the last couple of weeks."
No side has won the premiership from outside the top four but Green senses 2017 could be a different ball game.
Asked if the side could still compete and win a title, Green answered with a "yes".
"It is what it is," he said.
"If we finish outside the top four that won't worry us."
Green confirmed the Cowboys are unlikely to welcome back injured duo Antonio Winterstein and Gavin Cooper for at least another fortnight.
First published on NRL.com.