ESSENDON will enter Saturday's crunch game against Carlton barely clinging to its spot in the top eight after succumbing to North Melbourne last night in a thrilling contest at Etihad Stadium.
The Bombers are still in eighth position, but only a minuscule percentage difference separates them from ninth-placed Fremantle.
The club's once-promising finals hopes are in serious jeopardy of petering out to a disappointing end after they were over-run by a gutsy North Melbourne outfit that posted its fifth straight win.
The Roos lost two of their midfield runners - Daniel Wells (calf) and Leigh Adams (dislocated shoulder) - in the first quarter and also defender Nathan Grima (hamstring) in the last quarter.
It reduced the Roos to only two interchange rotations for most of the match, but they overcame the odds to upstage Essendon by 24 points, 15.10 (100) to 11. 10 (76), in a game the Bombers had built up as an early ''grand final'''.
The Blues-Bombers MCG showdown is just one of three crucial games in a monster round of football set to shape this year's finals - another being North Melbourne's clash with in-form Collingwood on Saturday night at Etihad Stadium.
The Roos, now on 12 wins, are edging closer to their first finals series since 2008, with games against Fremantle (Etihad Stadium) and Greater Western Sydney (Skoda Stadium) to come after the Pies, but North now has a one-game buffer on those outside the top eight, courtesy of last night's gallant victory.
The Roos will go into the Collingwood challenge full of confidence - and buoyed by the return of Jack Ziebell - after overtaking Geelong and moving into sixth position, but the win came at a cost.
Adams re-injured his left shoulder - the same one he hurt against Melbourne two weeks ago - and could face several weeks on the sidelines, while Wells is also in serious doubt to play against the Pies.
North Melbourne coach Brad Scott said Adams' shoulder injury was ''pretty significant'' and more serious than the other problems he has had with both shoulders this year.
Grima, though, is more likely to be available this week, with the Roos hopeful that the defender has only aggravated an existing hamstring tendinitis issue.
Scott said last night's win - payback from the heartbreaking after-the-siren loss to Essendon in round one - was one of the best wins he has been a part of at North Melbourne.
''When you can get through games like that under significant duress, that holds you in pretty good stead for the future,'' he said after the game.
''And when you are really under the pump in the future, you can draw back on this type of win. So it was a huge step forward for the playing group.''
Forward Lachie Hansen also copped a heavy knock to the head in the opening term in an ugly collision with Nathan Lovett-Murray, but the big Roo returned to the field and was a big factor with three goals.
North trailed at half-time, but three goals in three minutes early in the third quarter from veteran Brent Harvey turned the momentum of the match and the Roos kicked seven goals to three in the second half, despite a limited contribution from star forward Drew Petrie, who was kept goal-less by Dustin Fletcher.
If there was one bright note for Essendon it was that - for the first time in a long time - the Bombers survived with no injuries, and they could get players back for Saturday's last-roll-of-the-dice game against the Blues.
Essendon coach James Hird said injured duo Paddy Ryder and Brent Stanton were ''certainties'' to return from injury this week, while key midfielder David Zaharakis should also make his comeback from a quad injury against the Blues.