Stephen Myler’s last-gasp penalty kick hit the bar as Saints were denied victory in the cruellest of fashions against Saracens at stadium:mk.
The clock had gone dead when Myler, who had kicked four out of four up to that point, struck the penalty from inside his own half only to see the ball repelled by the upright.
It was heartache for Saints, who had come back from 11-0 down to lead heading into the final 15 minutes.
But the boot of Owen Farrell proved their undoing as the England star came off the bench to kick Sarries to a 17-16 victory.
Saracens, who were technically enjoying a home game, though the Saints support far outweighed the Fezheads’ fans, went ahead early on through John Smit’s try.
Charlie Hodgson then added two penalties before Saints found their feet, through Phil Dowson’s try and six points from Myler.
And Saints could sense victory as they went 16-11 up late on through two more superb Myler kicks.
But it wasn’t to be as Farrell landed two penalties and Saints No.10 had his late effort chewed up and spat out by the posts.
It means Saints end 2012 in sixth place in the Aviva Premiership and with a big task on their hands to start 2013 with a bang at Exeter next weekend.
Boss Jim Mallinder had made four changes his side for the clash at stadium:mk following the 18-9 defeat to Harlequins eight days earlier.
The most significant was the return of Dylan Hartley, who was back from a two-week ban, while Brian Mujati and Alex Waller joining the skipper in a freshened-up front row, and Dom Waldouck also back in the first 15.
As the teams emerged it was the Saints supporters who made their voices heard as the away following, massively outnumbering the Sarries hardcore, lifted the decibel level.
But it was the fans of the Fezheads who were brought to their feet early on as South African star Smit scored his first Premiership try on the back of a lineout drive.
Hodgson, whose kick had put Sarries in position for the try, missed the conversion from out wide but he made up for it three minutes later, landing a penalty to put his side 8-0 up.
It was already looking like a daunting task for Saints against an outfit who are notorious for their watertight defence.
And the mountain Northampton needed to climb got even steeper on 15 minutes as Hodgson again found his range to make it 11-0.
Saracens were looking sharp, but they switched off in defence 15 minutes before the break and Saints made them pay as No.7 Dowson put the finishing touches to a slick move.
Myler cut the gap to four points with a sweetly struck conversion and the men in blue suddenly had the bit between their teeth.
Saints were hit by an injury to Mujati, the prop limping off to be replaced by Paul Doran-Jones, but after resisting a dangerous Sarries surge, Myler landed a penalty.
The boot of the No.10 had brought Northampton back to within a point at the break, crowning a spirited first-half recovery.
In the middle of a key sequence of games at home and abroad, Saints needed a huge 40-minute showing after the break.
They were helped early on in the second period by Hodgson’s penalty miss, and Myler’s refusal to do likewise, the fly-half bisecting the posts to put Saints ahead for the first time.
Saracens opted to shuffle their pack as Joel Tomkins and Neil de Kock were hauled off, with England fly-half Owen Farrell and Richard Wigglesworth introduced.
And Farrell was probably eyeing kicking duties as Hodgson missed his successive kick, from in front of the posts.
Saints were holding on to a lead by the skin of their teeth and called for the cavalry as Soane Tonga’uiha replaced Alex Waller at loosehead.
The Tongan titan was to make an immediate impact in the loose and in the scrum, winning his side a shot at goal, which Myler kicked superbly from halfway.
Suddenly the Saints supporters behind the posts were starting to believe, but Farrell dragged Saracens back to within two points after taking over kicking duties from Hodgson.
Farrell was soon given the chance to put the home side in front as George Pisi ran into traffic and was penalised for holding on. Farrell didn’t miss and Sarries had a one-point lead.
The Fezheads looked set to close it out as they so often do, but Myler had one final chance to secure victory for Saints as he lined up a penalty from inside his own half.
But, gut-wrenchingly, his attempt hit the bar and ricocheted away to give Sarries the four points and leave Saints with just one.
Saracens: Wyles; Ashton, Tomkins (Farrell 48), Barritt, Strettle; Hodgson, de Kock (Wigglesworth 48); Vunipola (Gill 53), Smit (Brits 53), Stevens (Nieto 53); Kruis, Botha; Brown, Fraser, Joubert.
Replacements: Sheriff, Ross, Short.
Saints: Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, Waldouck, Elliott; Myler, Dickson; A Waller (Tonga’uiha 54), Hartley, Mujati (Doran-Jones 36); Manoa (Sorenson 70), Lawes; Wood, Dowson (Clark 57), van Velze
Replacements: Haywood, Roberts, Lamb, May.
Referee: JP Doyle