NORTH Melbourne has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat to continue its unlikely finals push, heading the Western Bulldogs with 20 seconds left off captain Jack Ziebell's goal-square finish.
The Roos looked to have put paid to the Bulldogs when they went 10 points clear in the last quarter – after trailing by 24 in the second term – but lost the lead with barely two minutes to go.
That Billy Gowers' goal should have made him the Dogs' hero and capped a superb solo display.
ROOS INCH OUT DOGS Full match coverage and stats
But Ziebell, having been inserted into the midfield after a four-disposal opening half, instead achieved that status thanks to a brilliant toe poke from Ben Brown that set him up.
The thrilling 12.5 (77) to 11.9 (75) victory was crucial in the scheme of the season, with North coming off the bye and clinging to the last spot in the top eight.
Coleman Medal frontrunner Brown booted five goals, but that final score assist was his biggest moment of the night.
A loss would have plunged the Kangas to 10th position, but instead Brad Scott's team inflicted a fifth defeat in a row on the Bulldogs.
They had five losses inside a goal last year, including two to the Dogs, so the feeling was sweet on Saturday night.
"You practice for those scenarios a lot and they don't happen that often, but clearly when they do, they're pretty important moments so you fall back on your training a little bit," Scott told reporters.
"And, to be honest, we fall back on some of our disappointments.
"We were on the wrong end of quite a few of those last year, so they're really painful at the time, but you learn from them and you then train it.
"It's great for the players to be on the right side of one of those really close games, when it looked like it had slipped away from us."
Shaun Higgins – playing against his former side – also had a say in that final match-winning thrust, as he did in most of what North Melbourne did in the second half.
WATCH Higgins influential in Roos' thriller
The Bulldogs never saw Higgins' best when he wore red, white and blue, but they had a front-row Etihad Stadium seat to it on this night.
Injuries and a restrictive half-forward role meant Higgins only hinted at his potential rather than realising it in his 129 games as a Bulldog.
Now charged with leading the Arden St cause, the 30-year-old came alive after half-time to be pivotal in the result.
Higgins had only 10 of his eventual 32 disposals in the first two quarters, when midfield mate Ben Cunnington held the fort, but was spectacular in the fightback.
He booted two of the Roos' five third-quarter goals – one a wonderful snap after crumbing and the other a steady set shot – as they slashed the Dogs' lead from 18 points to two.
WATCH The thrilling final two minutes
Cunnington finished with 30 possessions (22 contested) and, like Higgins, complemented his touches with eight clearances in another reminder of his ability.
Defenders Majak Daw and Robbie Tarrant came up big as well, but it was Luke McDonald who hung onto a defensive-50 grab to halt the Dogs' final foray after Ziebell's major.
Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge was left to lament a series of breakdowns by his players in the final minutes of the game.
"We fell apart structurally in the last two minutes after we kicked our last goal of the game," Beveridge said.
"It’s frustrating … more than frustrating – it's extremely disappointing, because we got ourselves in a position to win it. We fell away from what we did with the ball in the first half."
Earlier, Beveridge's men had muscled their way into the match with a surprise quarter-time edge in contested possession, an area they've struggled in.
The Bulldogs proceeded to break the game open in the first five minutes of the second term.
They doubled their goal tally inside 60 seconds from free kicks, starting with Zaine Cordy, who kicked truly then sparked a melee when he got into Tarrant's face afterwards.
But Kangaroo Marley Williams' decision to drag Gowers to the ground gifted the impressive Bulldog a shot at goal, which he slotted to put his side 18 points clear.
HEROES APLENTY IN BELTER Five talking points
They maintained that buffer to half-time, thriving off their defensive effort – peaking at a 313 pressure rating, more than 130 above the AFL average – and ability to link up away from the contest.
Hayden Crozier was the instigator for much of that, the ex-Dockers defender winning 23 of his career-high 30 disposals in the first two quarters before Kayne Turner dulled his influence.
There were positives in the performances of Aaron Naughton – playing as a forward rather than defender – and returns of stalwarts Dale Morris and Marcus Adams.
Western Bulldogs: Defender Jackson Trengove went into the rooms early in the final quarter with a suspected ankle injury.
North Melbourne: Ben Jacobs was a late scratching for the Roos – replaced by ex-Hawk Billy Hartung – after suffering from delayed onset concussion, with symptoms presenting after training during the week. Hartung limped from the field midway through the second term with a game-ending left hamstring injury.
The Bulldogs have a six-day turnaround to host Geelong at Etihad Stadium on Friday night. North, on the other hand, has eight days to prepare for Essendon at the same venue on Sunday week.
More to come
WESTERN BULLDOGS 2.1 6.3 8.7 11.9 (75)
NORTH MELBOURNE 1.1 3.3 8.5 12.5 (77)
Western Bulldogs: Crozier, Naughton, Hunter, McLean, Gowers
North Melbourne: Brown, Higgins, Daw, Cunnington, Dumont, Goldstein
Western Bulldogs: Gowers 3, Williams 2, Naughton 2, Wallis, Boyd, Cordy, Richards
North Melbourne: Brown 5, Ziebell 3, Higgins 2, Anderson, Atley
Western Bulldogs: Trengove (ankle)
North Melbourne: Jacobs (concussion) replaced in selected side by Hartung, Hartung (hamstring)
Umpires: Foot, Rosebury, Meredith, Mollison
Crowd: 26,301 at Etihad Stadium