Chris Coleman insists that all is not lost for Sunderland but there is no doubt that the 3-1 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday was a significant moment.
Hopes had been briefly raised after the win over Derby County but it did not take long for them to all but evaporate.
We pick through six of the main talking points to come from another gutting defeat...
Birmingham can shut the door tonight
“This is going to be remembered forever, people will be talking about it in many years time.
"People will say Sunderland did it, it is possible. Even if you are seven points adrift with six games you can do it.”
So said Gus Poyet, basking in the glow of a win over West Brom that completed the greatest of escapes.
Five points adrift with six games to go? Maybe Sunderland could pull off something spectacular.
Eight points adrift? Then there would surely be no chance.
The Black Cats face a tough challenge overhauling Birmingham. The Blues invested heavily last summer and boast remarkable individual quality in Jota, Sam Gallagher and others.
They are stirring under Garry Monk and the momentum is with them. Win against Bolton tonight and it could be curtains for the teams below.
Where's the aggression?
Sunderland's last great escape, under Sam Allardyce, was built on the aggression with which Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone defender their own penalty box.
This was another game in which the Black Cats meekly conceded from balls into their area.
It will sting Chris Coleman and Kit Symons, both of whom who were well regarded defenders in their playing days.
Coleman will be the first to say that his defensive coaching clearly has not paid off, unable to get his back line to implement the mentality he demands.
As most have long suspected, only an overhaul of personnel seems likely to bring about real change.
Sunderland's spine has just not been strong enough this season and yet again it undid any positive work happening elsewhere on the pitch.
A new goalkeeper will be key
Coleman rolled the dice on Lee Camp but it has not paid off.
The Black Cats boss defended his goalkeeper in his post-match press conference but you can read between the lines when he talked of two mistakes, Sunderland not 'clearing their lines'.
Camp put his defence under pressure with a desperate clearance in the build-up to the first goal and he has not instilled much confidence since his arrival.
If Ellis Short had allowed Coleman even a small scope for investment in January, he could have landed a stopper capable of making an enormous difference to Sunderland's points tally.
Ahead of what looks set to be at least one season in League One, the same mistake can't be made.
Without investment, however, it will not be easy.
Jason Steele and Robbin Ruiter have time to run on their contracts and it seems unlikely that there will be takers after this difficult season.
And so will a proper holding midfielder
One of Coleman's first tactical changes after taking charge was to install Darron Gibson as a holding midfielder.
Whatever formation the Welshman has gone with, and there have been many, that position has been crucial.
Both in terms of starting counter-attacks and breaking up the opposition's moves, the role is vital to maintaining the balance of the side. Lee Cattermole had a strong second half against Sheffield Wednesday, hitting the post with a superb effort, but on the whole he has been unconvincing since replacing Gibson at the base of the midfield.
Too often he has been overrun on the counter and his distribution can be erratic.
There are few positions that Sunderland will not need to strengthen this summer but this one will be high on the list.
Gooch deserves real praise
There is little point trying to pick positives out of a result that leaves the third tier closer than ever but Lynden Gooch deserves credit for his displays over the Easter weekend.
He has had a long and frustrating spell out the side but seized his chance.
Crucially, he made a defining contribution in the final third and carried the ball superbly, something Coleman has wanted from an attacker for months.
He might not be a winger by nature but has been excellent in the last two games and hinted at a promising future.
Playing like this he makes the Black Cats are more entertaining and threatening team.
McNair underlines his importance
The Northern Ireland international has been an effective operator in the last two games, with Coleman finding a much better blend in his starting XI.
it seems incredible that we are again looking to next season in the forlorn hope of a revival, but if McNair stays fit he will be a real asset.
Indeed, Sunderland need more players with his energy, athelticism and willingness to break forward.