Jermain Defoe's last-gasp penalty wasn't sufficient to keep Sunderland out of the relegation zone, yet a point at Stoke City could prove to be priceless for the Black Cats.
Newcastle's victory over Crystal Palace propelled the Magpies out of the bottom three and sent Sunderland back into it, but a 1-1 draw at the Britannia Stadium still felt like a bonus for Sam Allardyce's men after a rotten display.
This was as bad as Sunderland have performed since Allardyce was able to freshen the squad in the January transfer window, with the Black Cats showing no attacking conviction or seriously testing rookie keeper Jakob Haugaard.
Stoke took advantage of some soft Sunderland defending when Marko Arnautovic opened the deadlock early in the second half, albeit the visitors were protesting about a foul on Younes Kaboul in the build-up.
But Sunderland got out of jail in stoppage time when Defoe was brought down in the area and he stepped up himself to convert.
The opening exchanges were ugly as a spectacle, yet Sunderland looked defensively comfortable in subduing the hosts.
However, Sunderland needed Vito Mannone to be alert in the 18th minute after the keeper parried Peter Crouch's header behind, when the striker got above Younes Kaboul at the back post to meet Charlie Adam's left wing cross.
It sparked a better spell from the Potters - Crouch again heading wide at the back post, this time from a Phil Bardsley right wing cross.
Sunderland had a big let-off in the 34th minute when Allardyce's men completely switched off from a throw-in and Giannelli Imbula had space to run into 25 yards out.
Imbula fed the dangerous Marko Arnautovic down the left-hand side of the area, but with space to find the net, he lashed a horrible left-foot shot high and wide of the near post.
Sunderland were struggling to offer any meaningful effort threat at the other end - Jermain Defoe hitting a low shot from the edge of the box which was routine for Jakob Haugaard.
The Black Cats then fell behind within five minutes of the restart after being unable to deal with the most straightforward of route one attacks from Stoke.
Adam crossed from the left and Crouch got above Younes Kaboul at the back post - fairly in the referee's opinion - and headed it into the path of Arnautovic.
Lamine Kone was unable to rob Arnautovic and the Austrian smashed the ball low past Vito Mannone.
The goal finally brought a touch of life out of Sunderland, with Defoe firing inches over the bar just before the hour mark after cutting inside from the left when Stoke were unable to properly clear a corner.
But the Black Cats continued to be let down with their awful ball retention, as it remained all too easy for Stoke.
Defoe had another sight of goal in the 77th minute, hooking a volley over the bar after just about managing to bring Jan Kirchhoff's left wing cross under control.
If anything, a second Stoke goal appeared closer than a Sunderland leveller, with Glenn Whelan and Imbula firing just wide in the dying stages.
But in stoppage time, Sunderland were awarded a penalty after Yann M'Vila played the ball down the right-hand channel and Defoe went down under a slight push from Geoff Cameron.
Defoe kept his cool and sent Haugaard the wrong way from the spot in front of a delirious away end.
Stoke: Haugaard, Bardsley, Cameron, Shawcross, Pieters, Whelan, Imbula, Shaqiri (Diouf 78), Adam (Muniesa 86), Arnautovic (Walters 56), Crouch. Subs not used: Bachmann, Joselu, Wollscheid, Bojan. Booked: Adam (74), Imbula (83)
Sunderland: Mannone, Yedlin, Kone, Kaboul, van Aanholt, Kirchhoff (Larsson 77), Cattermole, M'Vila, Khazri (Watmore 60), Borini (N'Doye 60), Defoe. Subs not used: Pickford, O'Shea, Jones, Rodwell. Booked: N'Doye (79), Larsson (90)