WHAT constitutes a pass mark for the Newcastle Knights this season?
Before a ball was kicked in anger, if you had offered a guaranteed berth in the final eight I'd imagine most of their long-suffering fans would have snapped that up without so much as a second thought.
By round six, they'd have been relieved they did, with Newcastle's record reading one and five and 14 teams sitting above them on the competition ladder.
Then followed a cathartic six-game winning sequence, during which they knocked off premiers Sydney Roosters and competition leaders South Sydney in consecutive weeks.
Most assumed the top eight was a fait accompli. A top-four berth seemed a realistic aspiration.
Now things have gone pear-shaped, and after last night's 28-26 loss to Wests Tigers, Newcastle have lost four consecutive games, three of them on home soil.
By the end of this weekend, they will in all likelihood have surrendered the top-eight spot they have occupied for the past two months.
Like a handful of rival teams, Newcastle's ultimate fate remains uncertain.
Melbourne and the Roosters are in familiar situations and are well acquainted with the process of timing their run into the grand final.
South Sydney, Canberra and possibly Manly appear to be jostling for the remaining berths in the top four.
Gold Coast, Canterbury, St George Illawarra and North Queensland can start planning their respective Mad Monday wakes.
How the rest of them finish is anyone's guess.
For the Knights, I would suggest the pre-season benchmark of a play-off appearance - for the first time since 2013 - still applies.
That would represent a pass mark. Anything less would be universally regarded as a failure.
The question is whether the Knights are willing to settle for a pass, or whether they are determined to strive for a credit, a distinction or even honours.
Newcastle face Manly (away), Parramatta (away), Cowboys (home), Tigers (away), Gold Coast (home) and Penrith (away) in their remaining games. It's not the toughest draw any team will face, but nor is it the easiest. On current form, no opponent can be taken lightly.
Five wins from their last six games would almost certainly ensure Newcastle qualify for the finals. Four wins might be enough to sneak in.
Finishing seventh or eighth, however, means walking through a sudden-death minefield, on the road, from the outset.
Qualifying fifth or sixth would ensure Newcastle's first home final since 2006 - Andrew Johns' last full season - but that now looks a tall order.
Before round 19 kicked off, the Knights were two wins behind fifth-placed Manly and a win adrift of sixth-placed Parramatta. Conveniently, their next two games are against the same opponents, albeit in enemy territory.
And the way I look at it is: which team's roster would you prefer? Manly's or Newcastle's? Parramatta's or Newcastle's? Indeed, I would even say the same about Canberra.
The Raiders are enjoying a breakout season, but I can't help thinking they are overachieving and that they'll encounter a reality check before the season is done.
None of them can match the five players Newcastle provided for NSW and Queensland during the recent State of Origin series.
On paper I'd argue the Knights are stronger than Canberra, Manly and Parramatta, but of course games aren't played on paper. Newcastle have shown only glimpses of realising their potential.
A few years ago, after thrashing the Knights 62-0, Cronulla skipper Paul Gallen observed: "There wouldn't be too many players who played for Newcastle today who would make any other first-grade side, really."
That is clearly no longer the case. As mentioned above, the Knights have five current Origin players in their ranks, and the rest of their players would be welcome additions at most clubs in the NRL.
This is a stronger squad, I believe, than the one Wayne Bennett steered to two play-off wins in 2013, before bowing out against the eventual premiers, Sydney Roosters, in the grand final qualifier.
That season, Newcastle provided only two players during the Origin series, Darius Boyd and James McManus.
They won their last two games of an inconsistent campaign to finish seventh, but then rose to the occasion at the business end of proceedings.
Their 2019 counterparts possess arguably more strikepower, and similar levels of experience across the board. What they need to do now is replicate the self-belief and mental toughness the Knights of 2013 mustered late in the piece.
Newcastle have shown this year that, on their day, they are capable of beating quality opposition. They have also produced two or three inexplicably poor performances.
As skipper Mitchell Pearce said this week: "Every game is hard now, but that's why this is the exciting time of year. It's about how much you want it, and if you want it, you're going to get the results."
Last night the Tigers, who were blasted last week by coach Michael Maguire after losing in Canberra, rolled up their sleeves and got the job done.
They wanted the result, and they got it. It's hard to deny they deserved it.