A penalty try three minutes from time was enough to snatch Bristol a crucial 22-21 Guinness Premiership win over Newcastle on Sunday, maintaining their charge for the title.
The Falcons threatened to tear up the form guide by leading for much of a typically-attritional encounter.
But Bristol had just enough left in the tank to inflict punishing pressure on Newcastle's scrum after flanker Ben Woods had been sin-binned during the final minute of normal time, and referee Andy Small awarded a penalty try.
Substitute fly-half Jason Strange calmly slotted the match-winning conversion, and Bristol hung on to retain second place, just one point behind Leicester.
It was rough justice on Newcastle though, who belied their pre-match league position - eight places and 22 points behind Bristol - to compete vigorously throughout.
While England star Wilkinson recovered from what Falcons termed a series of "bumps, bruises and strains" following successive RBS 6 Nations appearances against Scotland and Italy, his red rose colleagues Toby Flood and Mathew Tait took centre stage.
Flood ran the show with a high-class display in Wilkinson's number 10 shirt, while centre Tait - who will be alongside Flood on England bench duty against Ireland at Croke Park on Saturday - scored an exquisite try.
Tait's midfield partner Jamie Noon also touched down, with Flood landing three penalties and a conversion, but Bristol's goalkickers came up trumps, with Strange booting eight points and David Hill slotting three penalties.
Newcastle, who had recorded a solitary Premiership away win all season, suffered an immediate setback when number eight Russell Winter was sin-binned inside three minutes for use of the boot at the game's first ruck.
Hill cashed in by booting the resulting penalty for Bristol, but it proved a short-lived advantage as Flood landed an equalising penalty before Newcastle conjured a superb 50-metre try.
Wing John Rudd utilised his power by smashing through two attempted Bristol tackles, before supporting lock Mark Sorenson delivered a one-handed pass to Tait, who finished in confident fashion.
The score confirmed Newcastle's reputation as a gifted attacking side, yet their much-maligned pack also relished the battle, with South African Winter and New Zealander Sorenson heavily involved in keeping Bristol at bay.
Hill and Flood exchanged further penalties, but the first half proved eminently forgettable from Bristol's perspective as they were heavily disrupted by losing three players to injuries.
Full-back Josh Taumalolo, centre Brian Lima and number eight Alfie To'oala all made premature exits - Craig Morgan, Jason Strange and Gareth Llewellyn were their respective replacements - which caused considerable reshuffling.
Morgan was a straight change for Taumalolo, but Hill moved into the centre and lock Roy Winters went to number eight before Hill completed his penalty hat-trick to leave the home side just 11-9 adrift at half-time.
Newcastle though, quickly showed their opening 40-minute display was no fluke, and they stung Bristol through a second try just eight minutes after the restart.
Woods, who made his England Saxons debut against Ireland A last week, powered into the heart of the home defence and, before they could regroup, Noon was sent scurrying over.
Flood converted and then landed a penalty to leave Bristol 21-9 adrift, and although Strange booted a close-range penalty after Hill became the latest injury casualty, Newcastle remained in control.
It was an outstanding effort by the Falcons forwards, who continued to frustrate their opponents at source, and the game proved an increasingly-frustrating experience for scrum-half Shaun Perry in his attempt to boss proceedings behind a subdued home pack.
A second Strange penalty brought Bristol back to six points adrift, but Flood remained the game's dominant figure, keeping Newcastle in charge through his outstanding tactical kicking and consistent taking of right options.
Bristol inevitably went for broke during the closing minutes, and Newcastle were again reduced to 14 when Woods was sin-binned following a technical infringement, which left his colleagues hanging on without him.
And it proved a costly departure, as referee Small awarded Bristol an immediate penalty try when Newcastle collapsed a scrum, and Strange's conversion preserved the west country club's unbeaten home record in all competitions this term.
Try: Penalty try
Pens: Hill 3, Strange 2
Tries: Tait, Noon
Pens: Flood 3
Yellow card: Winter (3, Newcastle)
Bristol: 15 Josh Taumalolo, 14 Lee Robinson, 13 Brian Lima, 12 Rob Higgitt, 11 David Lemi, 10 David Hill, 9 Shaun Perry, 8 Alfie To'oala, 7 Joe El Abd, 6 Matt Salter (c), 5 Sean Hohneck, 4 Roy Winters, 3 Darren Crompton, 2 Mark Regan 1 David Hilton,
Replacements: 16 Scott Linklater, 17 Alex Clarke, 18 Gareth Llewellyn, 19 Redford Pennycook, 20 Brian O'Riordan, 21 Jason Strange, 22 Craig Morgan.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Matthew Burke (c), 14 Tom May, 13 Mathew Tait, 12 Jamie Noon, 11 John Rudd, 10 Toby Flood, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Russell Winter, 7 Ben Woods, 6 Geoff Parling, 5 Jason Oakes, 4 Mark Sorenson, 3 Micky Ward, 2 Andy Long, 1 Joe McDonnell.
Replacements: 16 David Wilson, 17 Matt Thompson, 18 Andy Buist, 19 Brent Wilson, 20 Mark Mayerhofler, 21 James Grindal, 22 Loki Crichton.
Referee: Andrew Small
Touch judges: Bob Mullis, Paul Emerson
Assessor: Paul Bridgman
Television match official: Laurie Bryant