Greatest team of all time wins greatest grand final

For an hour, the impossible was about to become possible.

The Brisbane Broncos had rolled with every punch, shrugged off every self-inflicted wound, and hit the almighty Panthers with a barrage of counter-punches to be cruising towards their first premiership since 2006.

The question wasn't who was going to win. It was by how much - and the other discussion point was going to be if this was really the end for Penrith, if they'd finally hit a wall, and if they'd ever be the 'Big Bad' again.

As it turns out, we won't have to worry about it happening again, because it's still happening now, as they won their third title in as many years with a Nathan Cleary-led comeback for the ages.

Prisoner of the moment be damned, this was the best grand final of all time. It was Nathan Cleary's best spell of play of all time, and another page in the Panthers' resume to be considered the best team of all time.

One of the worst things about modern sports watching is how often we can get caught up with an obsession over being right, labeling players or teams with tags 'frauds', 'big game bottlers' or other sledges.

The knives weren't just sharpened for Cleary by the snarkiest corner of sports fans the internet has to offer, they were dangling over his head.

But what happened next showed why even the smartest and most-astute sports minds among us can get it wrong. Because after an hour of attacking footy with all the effectiveness of a wet noodle, Penrith clicked into gear, and their star man produced the finest passage of play in his decorated career to swipe the premiership in a way that nobody expected going into the match.

The Panthers were supposed to win in the way the first half dictated. Get on top in the forward battle and bludgeon them to death. The attack might not work at first, but if you keep the pressure on, it'll all work out. It's an attitude that has served them well for so long.

The two most memorable images of the opening exchanges were Moses Leota sending Patrick Carrigan flying, and Liam Martin screaming with primal rage after a Brisbane error. There'd been so much talk about Brisbane's forwards that the Penrith establishment played like they'd taken offence.

Nobody had forgotten about them, but they still felt like they had to send a reminder.

The biggest knock on Penrith during this golden era has been a level of profligacy when attacking the other team's line that you wouldn't associate with a team that's so finely tuned in every other aspect. That criticism was proven correct at the worst possible time when, despite their physical and territorial dominance, the only points they scored came via two ill-fated short dropouts.

Brisbane were hanging on for dear life everywhere but the scoreboard. There were miscues, slip-ups and basic errors that everyone said they needed to avoid like the plague, if they were to have any chance of keeping the game close. Even Reece Walsh was mostly bottled up before the break.

But here's the thing; you can stuff up play-the-balls, restarts, throw passes over the touchline, kick the ball dead and whatever else you feel like all night long if it only hurts you on the stat sheet, and not the scoreboard.

Brisbane chanced their arm repeatedly and got stung. But they never shied away from it and when Ezra Mam streaked away for his third try, only one team looked like they wanted to be here.

What happened in the last 20 minutes defied any logic that could be applied to this sport, or any other. A team of notorious front-runners, who'd been unable to score a single point without the assistance of Adam Reynolds' boot, were left in a massive hole against a team whose goal line defence is one of the best in the league. It was meant to be a procession. But the Kevolution will not be televised.

What Cleary accomplished en route to his second Clive Churchill Medal in three years will be spoken about until the last Steeden is kicked by the last person on earth. Plenty felt that we had been too eager to compare him to the greatest halfbacks to ever play the game, and that the success of the Panthers was down to the system, rather than an individual.

Today, when the system failed, the man delivered. No signature moments? No taking over big games? A foolish opinion that after tonight will likely not be offered up again by anyone with an ounce of sincerity.

He was of course not Penrith's only good performer - the middle forward rotation was once again superb, Dylan Edwards would run all day if he had the option, and the departing Stephen Crichton was once again the man for the big occasion, popping up with a vital try as he so often does.

What comes next? There'll be plenty of time to worry about that later. Bar Adam Reynolds, the core of this Broncos team is young, and now even hungrier than before. They may well have their day, but today was not it.

There are no worlds left for Penrith to conquer. But that doesn't mean they'll get bored repeatedly reinforcing their ownership of this one.