Penrith have snatched the competition lead after eventually outclassing the vastly-improved Cowboys 22-10 in a scrappy contest at Panthers Stadium on Sunday.
But they paid a price for their fifth consecutive victory with fullback Dylan Edwards (hamstring) and centre Dean Whare (groin) failing to finish the match.
North Queensland were valiant, harnessing the gritty defensive spirit they showed in the first half against premiers Sydney Roosters last week.
Missing a glut of stars, the Cowboys fielded a side that featured eight players with fewer than 30 games of NRL experience, including impressive debutant five-eighth Daejarn Asi.
Speedy fullback Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, deputising for the injured Valentine Holmes, bagged a sensational first-half try that was the highlight of the match.
Returning to Panthers Stadium for the first time since round one, the hosts lacked their usual fluency but have now leapfrogged Parramatta and Melbourne in the race for the minor premiership.
Halfback Nathan Cleary produced some bruising tackles as well as a mighty effort to get out of his in-goal in the second half to inspire his troops after they trailed 10-4. He also scored a late try and kicked three goals.
Match: Panthers v Cowboys
Round 10 -
Venue: Panthers Stadium, Penrith
The media focus on Penrith this week was around whether assistant coach Trent Barrett, credited with helping transform the team's attack, is set to become the next Bulldogs mentor.
But Barrett couldn't get the offense firing to begin with as the Panthers managed just four points in the opening 40 minutes despite dominating possession and territory.
It appeared the Cowboys were in for a long afternoon when Penrith five-eighth Jarome Luai crossed in the fourth minute after Stephen Crichton batted back a pinpoint Cleary bomb.
Penrith lost Whare after that try. The veteran, who returned from a toe issue, was replaced by usual second-rower Billy Burns on the right edge.
The Cowboys dug in and kept Penrith at bay for the remainder of the first half, even with the home side having 63 percent of the ball after 27 minutes and benefitting from several cheap penalties.
Tabuai-Fidow carves up the Panthers
North Queensland continued to chip away and received just reward for their grit five minutes from the break as Tabuai-Fidow scored a stunner.
The speedy 18-year-old zigged, zagged and zipped past six defenders to touch down in the left corner. Livewire interchange hooker Reuben Cotter provided the offload for Tabuai-Fidow.
Unlike last week, when they were blown away by the Roosters to begin the second half, the Cowboys stuck to the task when they returned to the field.
Asi marked his debut with a try, selling a dummy before brushing through some arm tackles to give his side the lead.
Asi gets his first try in the NRL and the Cowboys hit the lead
Penrith responded in the 46th minute as they created a huge overlap on the right edge, with Burns selflessly passing to winger Brent Naden to finish the movement. Cleary nailed the sideline conversion to lock things up.
The NSW Origin halfback then made his presence felt in defence with a couple of heavy tackles that further tipped the momentum, including jolting the ball free from Coen Hess.
Pressure turned possession into points this time when Crichton accepted a Tyrone May offload in the 58th minute to claim his seventh try in the past five matches. Crichton moved to fullback when Edwards went off shortly afterwards.
The Cowboys had their chances in the closing stages but the Panthers held on in front of 2891 fans, with Cleary capping off his fine performance with a try on the stroke of full-time.