Warriors coach Brian McClennan described it as the "darkest day" in his first NRL season as Todd Carney-inspired Cronulla dished out a 45-4 flogging in Auckland on Sunday.
Last year's beaten grand finalists are still alive mathematically but the nature of their fourth straight defeat and a growing injury toll suggests they can start planning for 2013.
"This would be our darkest day this year," McClennan said.
"They were just way too good for us today ... Todd Carney was very, very good.
"They ended up with a lot of possession and most of it was our fault. You're going to get beat up a lot when the other team has 14 more sets."
Carney scored 25 points, including the first two of their seven tries, while landing eight from eight goals and a field goal as the Sharks ran rampant to end their own three-match losing streak.
Winger John Williams and impressive interchange prop Andrew Fifita also crossed for doubles as the Sharks leapfrogged North Queensland to consolidate their position in the top eight.
Paul Gallen's return from injury was nearly as impressive, the skipper racking up a game-high 195 metres in his first club game for almost two months.
Flanagan praised Carney for an inspirational performance and Gallen for his gutsy return.
"It's not just what Gall does on the field, it's the presence and confidence he gives to the players around him," Flanagan said.
"For someone who hasn't run for six weeks since Origin, to do that was a pretty special effort."
Gallen said he felt "pretty busted" at halftime but was relieved to come through unscathed and for his team to end their slump.
"Every team hits a flat spot and we happened to get 4-5 injuries when we did hit it.
"We're getting some troops back now and it's good to get back on the winners' list. It gives the team and the club some confidence."
The Warriors were listless and offered little on attack, particularly after playmaker James Maloney left the game in the 16th minute with a knee ligament injury.
He is an unlikely starter next week while prop Ben Matulino suffered a chest injury that may rule him out.
The Warriors slumped to 13th on the ladder, four points adrift of the top eight with four games remaining, and suffered serious damage to their for-and-against points differential.
There was an element of luck to Carney's first try, when a Shaun Johnson grubber cannoned into his foot. He scooped up the loose ball and raced almost 90 metres, evading the valiant dive of prop Russell Packer when halfway there.
Carney sliced through some muddled Warriors defence in the 12th minute before landing a penalty goal and converting a try to halfback Jeff Robson, which was set up by an electric Colin Best burst.
Winger Bill Tupou crossed for the Warriors' only try when the video referee ruled Robson had stripped possession from Elijah Taylor in the leadup.
However, Carney's field goal before halftime and Fifita's easy try soon after secured the outcome.
Williams out-pointed opposite Tupou for his two tries before Fifita bagged his second in the dying stages.