Coach James Hird admits time is running out for Essendon who are clinging to eighth spot on the AFL ladder after a fourth consecutive defeat.
The Bombers, who started the season with eight wins in nine games, have an 11-8 record following their 15.10 (100) to 11.10 (76) loss on Sunday to North Melbourne in front of an Etihad Stadium crowd of 42,674.
North's win lifts them from seventh to sixth while Hird is left to ponder how his side could have failed to put away the injury-stricken Kangaroos.
Daniel Wells (calf) and Leigh Adams (shoulder) left the field in the first quarter for North and Nathan Grima (hamstring) was unable to finish the game, while Lachie Hansen ended with three goals despite being concussed in the first quarter.
Essendon trailed by nine points at three-quarter time before the Kangaroos finished with a four-goal final term to run away with a courageous win against their traditional foes.
"You would have thought with Wells and Adams coming off as early as they did, that would have helped us," Hird said.
"They certainly out-ran us, out-spread us and outplayed us. They've improved out of sight."
Hird said allowing North to claim 101 uncontested marks to Essendon's 54 was ridiculous: "We've got to be better than that."
The Bombers face Carlton (10-9) in a massive round-21 clash on Saturday.
Hird says Brent Stanton and Patrick Ryder are certain to return while 2011 club champion David Zaharakis (quad injury) is also under consideration along with Tayte Pears and Cale Hooker.
"We've lost four in a row and we have to win because if we don't win, we won't make it. We have to work out this week how we can beat Carlton," Hird said.
"The MCG, Carlton versus Essendon for a spot in the eight, a pretty big game I would have thought."
Michael Hurley and Alwyn Davey kicked three goals each for the Bombers while Brownlow Medal favourite Jobe Watson was dominant with 32 possessions.
Veteran Brent Harvey was best-afield with 21 possessions and three goals in three minutes in the third term for the Kangaroos while Robbie Tarrant also booted three majors.
North will regain Lindsay Thomas and vice-captain Jack Ziebell from suspension for Saturday night's game against third-placed Collingwood.
Adams' latest shoulder problem could be season-ending and Wells may miss several weeks.
"It was certainly one of the best wins I've been involved in at North Melbourne," coach Brad Scott said.
"It was just an outstanding effort under an enormous amount of duress."
Scott said 34-year-old ex-skipper Harvey was a great leader: "The cream just rises to the top, particularly under pressure."