Kalyn Ponga emphatically answered the first real criticism of his career to help keep Newcastle's season alive with a 42-6 demolition of North Queensland.
Ponga and the equally under-fire Mitchell Pearce had a hand in five of Newcastle's seven tries, both picking up doubles to snap the Knights' six-game losing streak.
In easily his best performance since the State of Origin period, Ponga finished with two line breaks and six tackle busts to go with his two tries at home.
He also had a crucial one-on-one try-saving tackle on Coen Hess just after half- time, as the Cowboys attempted to overcome an 18-6 deficit.
It marked a vital win for Newcastle to move ninth, after top-eight rivals Penrith and Wests Tigers already lost this weekend.
"Pearce has been getting a hard time for a lot of his life, but for Kalyn I don't think he's ever been given a hard time," coach Nathan Brown said.
"He showed his qualities and it didn't seem to bother him. He approached the game in a matter that suits his style of play.
"By his own call, he'd tell you he's had a couple of quieter weeks in a number of areas in his game. He certainly cares a lot."
The Knights will finish the round just one win out of the eight, currently with the best for-and-against of the six sides battling it out for the last two finals spots.
It also sets up a blockbuster clash with the Tigers next Saturday, which will be sudden-death for both sides.
Newcastle also have Gold Coast and Penrith to finish, with their first finals appearance since 2013 beckoning.
Criticised for his form and on-field demeanour after last week's loss to Parramatta, Ponga scored Newcastle's first when he stepped off his left to beat three Cowboys.
He also landed the knockout punch just before halftime, as he took it himself on the right edge to slice over and give Newcastle a 12-point lead.
"It's all a learning curve for me, (with criticism)" Ponga said.
"I just had to go back to my strength. The past few weeks I have been throwing passes or trying to kick.
"I've just go to go back to what I'm good at and keep doing it."
Pearce's outing was also his best since NSW's series win.
He followed up Ponga's opener with one in the next set, as he stepped through a gap from inside his own half and going 55 metres to score.
His second after the break then put the game beyond doubt, as he jinked off his left and right to go past two Cowboys and score.
He also laid on a short ball for edge runner Mitch Barnett to cross moments later, before Sione Mata'utia and Mason Lino enhanced the scoreline.
The only concern for the Knights came in the form of a knee concern to Connor Watson, who left the field in the second half and did not return.
Meanwhile the loss was North Queensland's fifth in a row, with their finals hopes already gone.