St George Illawarra's season looks all but over after the Dragons succumbed to a 40-18 loss to Penrith on Friday night.
The Panthers secured their seventh win in a row to climb to seventh on the NRL table on 20 points, while the Dragons remain in 14th - four points out of the top eight with seven rounds remaining after their third straight loss.
Coach Paul McGregor's gamble to rest representative halfback Ben Hunt appeared to backfire as the Dragons slumped to a 22-point defeat, their 11th in 17 matches this season.
The Dragons now look almost certain to miss the NRL finals for the sixth time in the last eight seasons and third time in last four years under McGregor.
Even the return of inspirational prop James Graham from a broken leg couldn't lift St George Illawarra, with Gareth Widdop's potential comeback from a serious shoulder injury looking like it will come too late if he is fit to play South Sydney next week.
Penrith led 10-0 midway through the first half thanks to an acrobatic Brian Lo'o try and Brent Naden's effort from Mitchell Kenny's grubber.
But the Dragons hit back to take the lead. Mikaele Ravalawa scored his 10th try of the season after a brilliant run and pass from Luciano Leilua.
Then a Cameron McInnes break out of dummy half marched St George Illawarra down field with help from Leilua and Matt Dufty. From the next play, Josh Kerr charged over from close range to score his first NRL try.
The Dragons though were unable to take their 12-10 lead to half-time, with Lo'o scoring his second just before the break despite the best efforts of Ravalawa to hold him up.
As much as the first half had been a contest it was all Penrith in the second.
The rampant Panthers ran in four unanswered tries in the first 19 minutes after half-time with Moses Leota, Nathan Cleary, Naden and Reagan Campbell-Gillard all touching down to blow the Dragons away.
With Penrith in front 40-12, they then lost Viliame Kikau to the sin bin for a late tackle. It appeared a strange decision, given Dragons fullback Dufty was not sent to the sin bin for a blatant shoulder charge to stop Naden from scoring in the opening minutes. A point Panthers captain James Maloney made to match officials.
Paul Vaughan scored a late consolation try for the Dragons who remain only four points outside the top eight. But they will likely need to win all seven of their remaining games if they are to make an improbable finals appearance this season.
Even the most one-eyed of Dragons fans would find that scenario unlikely.
Penrith Panthers 40 (Brian Lo'o two, Brent Naden two, Moses Leota, Nathan Cleary, Reagan Campbell-Gillard tries. Nathan Cleary six goals)
St George Illawarra Dragons 18 (Mikaele Ravalawa, Josh Kerr, Paul Vaughan tries. Corey Norman three goals)
at Panthers Stadium, Penrith
Leader man of the match: James Maloney (Panthers)
Dragons' next three: Rabbitohs (away), Eels (home - Kogarah), Titans (home - Kogarah)