With time up, the biggest shock in the history of the qualifiers was on the cards. Clare had hit the last four scores to level the match and they had all the momentum.
Paul McComiskey finally put Down ahead, but that was only part of the drama. Deep in injury-time in Ennis, Down corner-forward Conor Laverty took the ball off his own goal-line as it was headed for the net.
Clare were excellent, producing their best championship performance since beating Sligo in 2004, but this match posed huge questions about Down's championship prospects.
Their panel was stretched with injuries and they started some new players but there were only sporadic splashes of polish applied to their performance and they scored just twice in the last 25 minutes.
The problems they experienced at midfield in last year's All-Ireland final still haven't gone away and the experiment of playing Marty Clarke there clearly didn't work, either.
Down opened up as if they were going to rout Clare when their first four attacks were threatened goals. They had 1-2 on the board after five minutes, but it was as if they thought they'd win by a cricket score and they mentally switched off.
It was obvious afterwards that Down were struggling to tune back into the required frequency. They were only ahead by a point at the interval and although they had the first five scores of the half with the breeze at their backs, Clare charged at them again.
"What we'll take away from this game is the result and nothing else," said Down manager James McCartan. "Our boys thought they were just going to try and go for goals and we really almost rued that. Fair play to Clare, they dug deep for the last 15 minutes of the first half and the last 15 of the second.
"We started both halves pretty brightly and then whenever it starts to unravel a wee bit you're scratching your head. But obviously we'll be looking at ourselves closely over the next few days. We'd obviously be disappointed in the way we went out of the game for long periods at the end of both halves."
Clare's decision to go man-for-man and not play a sweeper system looked set to backfire when they were cut apart at the back in the opening quarter but they really went for it afterwards.
"We were brave as a team and that's the way we decided to go out and play," said Clare manager Michael McDermott. "If we were going to win the game, we'd win it playing football and showing courage and bravery -- not being negative, not being here to contain."
Gary Brennan was excellent at midfield in the second half and after Clare won five successive Down kick-outs, the visitors were forced to bring Kalum King back into midfield after they'd taken him off just 15 minutes earlier. A David Tubridy free levelled the match with three minutes remaining, but Clare's opportunity of glory disappeared with the end-line in sight. A high ball was contested by Down goalkeeper Brendan McVeigh and Clare's Laurence Healy and the loose ball was about to cross the line when Laverty intervened.
It was nearly Clare's greatest day since their Munster semi-final win against Cork in 1997, but they weren't interested in moral victories afterwards.
"Gary Brennan just spoke in a huddle and the one thing he said was no matter who applauds you off the field, no matter who slaps you on the back, we lost and remember the pain and the hurt of losing against a really top-quality team," said McDermott.
"It was a great display for Clare, but it's all about winning. Our year is over. Down move forward and who knows what momentum will bring them now."
On the evidence of Saturday though, Down will need to find a lot more than momentum to make their summer stretch as long as last season's did.
SCORERS -- Down: C Laverty 1-3, P McComiskey 0-4 (2f), M Clarke 0-2 (2fs), B McArdle, C Mooney, M Poland, B Coulter 0-1 each. Clare: D Tubridy 0-4 (3f), T Ryan 1-0, J Dowling, G Quinlan 0-2 each, A Clohessy, John Hayes, G Brennan, M Tubridy 0-1 each.
Down -- B McVeigh 7; A Brannigan 7, D Gordon 6, B McArdle 6; D Rooney 6, K McKernan 6, K Duffin 7; M Clarke 6, K King 6; C Mooney 6, M Poland 7, L Doyle 6; P McComiskey 7, B Coulter 7, C Laverty 8. Subs: D O'Hagan 6 for K Duffin (55), P Murphy 6 for King (49) (K King for Murphy 64), P Fitzpatrick 6 for L Doyle (60).
Clare -- Joe Hayes 8; K Hartnett 7, B Duggan 8, L Healy 7; M McMahon 8, John Hayes 8, M Tubridy 7; G Brennan 8, G Quinlan 7; A Clohessy 7, D Tubridy 7, C O'Connor 6; R Donnelly 6, T Ryan 6, N Browne 6. Subs: D Callinan 7 for M Tubridy (39), D Russell 6 for C O'Connor (66), M O'Shea 7 for R Donnelly (48), J Dowling 8 for Ryan (52).
REF -- P O'Sullivan (Kerry).