North Queensland Cowboys coach Todd Payten has ripped into his team after they were thumped by the Penrith Panthers on Saturday evening.

The game was a must-win encounter for the Cowboys, who are now out of finals contention as a result of the loss.

Instead of arriving with energy and intensity though, the Cowboys raised the white flag on the road to the minor premiers early on and found themselves trailing 26 points to 0 at halftime.

They went on to fall short in the contest 44 points to 12.

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Speaking during his post-match press conference, Payten singled out Luciano Leilua as the only player who stood up physically, with the rest of the team falling well short of the mark.

“When you're playing a good physical team and you show any sign of weakness, they get real hungry and that first period after 20 minutes, the only bloke I saw standing up physically was Luc [Luciano Leilua],” Payten said during his post match press conference.

“We were shell-shocked. The boys were looking at each other waiting for someone else to do something when we needed to come together as a team and fight together, that was the hard part to watch.

“To go in at halftime like we did, with everything to play for and getting put on the back foot and not showing any real resolve was really, really disappointing and hard to cop.

“We had 17 plays inside our own 20 for five tries and that's not good enough at NRL level, no matter who you're playing.

“We sit here after 27 weeks and we're going to watch finals, more than anything because we didn't stop enough tries.”

The Cowboys, who hosted a preliminary final on the back of a top four finish last year, have suffered a dismal collapse this season.

Their defence, which became fearsome last year, has fallen well by the way side, with their right edge in particular struggling, while the glowing combination of Chad Townsend and Tom Dearden failed to aim up to the standards set last year.

Other injuries and suspensions have impacted the Cowboys at times, but ultimately, they came up well short when it mattered throyughout the 2023 campaign.

Payten admitted falling out of the top eight over the final six weeks was disappointing, but stopped short of making any excuses for his team's poor performance during the post game.