Tonight at Kingspan Stadium Ulster's run of six straight Guinness PRO12 wins came to an end in a hard-fought draw with a combative Cardiff Blues side, leaving Les Kiss's side with plenty to do in the final three rounds to secure a top four slot.
Tries from Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall, along with a penalty try and nine points from Jackson's boot, proved not quite enough to seal a victory, and Ulster must now face the three teams above them in the table - Munster, Ospreys and Leinster - in the run-in for a play-off place.
The return of Ireland captain Rory Best at hooker was one of three personnel changes implemented by Head Coach Kiss, with Jackson back in at out-half and Roger Wilson taking over the Number Eight shirt.
Elsewhere Ulster lined up with a back three of Jared Payne at full-back and Craig Gilroy and Charles Piutau on the wings, while Stuart Olding reverted to centre where he partnered Marshall. Ruan Pienaar, the province's second-highest scorer this term behind only Jackson on 100 points, continued at scrum-half.
Up front Andrew Warwick and Wiehahn Herbst propped either side of skipper Best, with Kieran Treadwell and Alan O'Connor in the second row, and a back row of Iain Henderson and Sean Reidy alongside Wilson.
Ulster just shaded a patchy first half which was illuminated by a fantastic combination between Pienaar and Jackson for the first home try, and which saw no fewer than three Cardiff players leave the field with injuries.
Blues, currently lying eighth in the PRO12 table, belied their lowly standing with a strong start which culminated in an eighth-minute penalty from Gareth Anscombe.
Ulster wasted little time in hitting back, Jackson grounding his third try of the season in a move which showcased the fantastic rugby nous of the Ulster half-back partnership.
Piutau picked up off a 50-50 aerial challenge between Gilroy and Blaine Scully - which proved the Cardiff winger's final act in the match - and tore a diagonal line towards the visitors' '22', where Pienaar took over to kick directly into the spot that Jackson had signalled to his team-mate. The out-half dribbled over for a fine score, adding the conversion himself.
Cardiff dug in well, Sam Warburton touching down from close range after several minutes of pressure, with Anscombe's conversion edging his side back in front.
After George Earle had joined Scully in the treatment room Ulster redressed the balance just before the half-hour mark, referee Ian Davies awarding the penalty try as Cardiff collapsed the rolling maul, and Jackson adding the extras.
Multiple missed tackles from Ulster soon gifted Cardiff a 10-metre line-out, but sloppy play from both sides ensured the ball changed hands several times before Ulster eventually cleared their lines.
There was still time left in the half for Warburton to hobble off with a nasty-looking knee injury, replaced by former Kingspan fan favourite Nick Williams, and for Payne to pick up a knock of his own.
Half-Time Score Ulster 14 Cardiff Blues 10
Payne lasted only two minutes of the second period, replaced by Jacob Stockdale who as last line of defence was unable to prevent Rey Lee-Lo's try on 48 minutes as Cardiff nudged their way back in front.
The game now hanging delicately in the balance, a penalty conceded by none other than Williams gave Ulster their next meaningful attack, and when Cardiff infringed again 20 metres from their own posts Jackson gratefully slotted home the kick to restore parity.
With Andrew Trimble in the mix for the final 25 minutes, on in place of Gilroy, Ulster still had plenty to do - even more so when Lee-Lo slalomed through the defence on the hour mark for his second try of the evening.
A converted try adrift, Ulster moved the ball well in midfield but struggled to find the breakthrough, eventually resorting to percentage kicks which the Cardiff wings gratefully gobbled up.
The hosts fared much better when they kept ball in hand, and had the strength of Marshall to thank on 69 minutes as the centre broke through three tackles to ground the try, once again converted by Jackson to bring the scores level.
All gun blazing now, Ulster pummelled the Cardiff defence for the next five minutes, only losing possession through an unfortunate knock-on 10 metres from home. As Blues cleared up the pitch a further knock-on presented them with a scrum well within Anscombe's kicking range, but Ulster did well to wrestle back possession before the out-half could be fed the ball as the clock hit 80 minutes.
Next up is a mouth-watering clash with interprovincial rivals Munster at Thomond Park on 15 April, before a trip to the Ospreys and the final game of the season proper at home to Leinster.
Full-Time Score Ulster 24 Cardiff Blues 24
Ulster (15 - 9) Jared Payne; Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Stuart Olding, Charles Piutau; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar
(1 - 8) Andrew Warwick, Rory Best (c), Wiehahn Herbst, Kieran Treadwell, Alan O'Connor, Iain Henderson, Sean Reidy, Roger Wilson
Replacements (16- 23) Rob Herring, Callum Black, Rodney Ah You, Robbie Diack, Nick Timoney, Paul Marshall, Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Trimble
Cardiff Blues (15 - 9) Rhun Williams; Alex Cuthbert, Reynold Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Blaine Scully; Gareth Anscombe, Lloyd Williams
(1 - 8) Gethin Jenkins (c), Matthew Rees, Taufa'ao Filise, George Earle, Jarrad Hoeata, Ellis Jenkins, Sam Warburton, Josh Navidi
Replacements (16 - 23) Kirby Myhill, Corey Domachowski, Kieron Assiratti, James Down, Nick Williams, Tomos Williams, Steve Shingler, Matthew Morgan