The Dragons will need to end a year-long drought against NRL top-four teams on Sunday to have any chance of making an impression come finals time, according to lock Trent Merrin.
The Dragons are 5-4 under Paul McGregor with wins over the Sharks, Titans, Storm, Cowboys and Tigers but have come up short against top-four rivals, falling to the Rabbitohs, Panthers and the Sea Eagles ahead of last week's 30-22 loss to defending premiers the Roosters.
The loss continued a run of outs for the Dragons against teams at, or close to, the ladder's summit.
Their last victory over a top-four side came in round 19 last year when a Brett Morris try snatched a 22-18 golden point victory over then competition leaders the Rabbitohs.
The Dragons host the third-placed Panthers on Sunday after almost knocking off the competition surprise packets in round 16 - scoring three tries apiece with goal-kicking the difference in the 18-14 loss.
With the Dragons needing to win four of their last five games to feature in this year's finals series, Merrin said they need to win the return match at WIN Stadium - their final game in Wollongong this year - to prove they're worthy.
"We have to. It's something that needs to be done if we want to make the eight. We all know that and it's in the back of our minds," Merrin said.
"The last three weeks we've had some top teams come up against us so we're building that momentum. I know we've been losing but we've been taking a lot of positives out of it and we're building on it.
"The Roosters came out really strong in the first half and I think we stuck it with them. They just did small things a little bit better than we did.
"We were in it for most of the game and we've done that with the two top teams so far so we know that we're capable of doing it. It's just about finishing off those little things we fell off on. It's going to be a another big test against Penrith this week but we've got them at home and we're looking forward to it."
The Panthers, led by former Dragons playmaker Jamie Soward, have been over-achievers in the eyes of many this year but their bubble is yet to burst after overcoming a hefty injury toll to notch a 22-16 win over the Bulldogs last week. The win consolidated third place on the ladder for the Panthers and Merrin needed no convincing when asked if they were genuine premiership contenders.
"They wouldn't be where they are if they weren't," he said.
"I think they've bonded really well this year and everyone works hard for each other and that's what builds a quality football team."