Wayne Rooney admitted Derby face an uphill battle to avoid relegation from the Sky Bet Championship after his side suffered a fourth successive defeat, 3-0 at Preston.
Ben Whiteman headed the Lilywhites into the lead in the 18th minute before Ched Evans doubled their lead by pouncing on a loose ball to convert from close range with 17 minutes left to play.
Ryan Ledson wrapped up the three points for Preston with a low free-kick in the closing stages, leaving the Rams just four points above the relegation zone in 21st position.
And after watching his side slip to another league defeat, former Manchester United and England striker Rooney was left to reflect on a series of mistakes which proved costly at Deepdale.
He said: “We started the game brightly but their first goal on the night comes from a number of mistakes from our players. These are important players for us, so that part of the game is frustrating to take as a manager.
“We are still conceding too many sloppy goals and we only created a few half chances tonight and we didn’t score from those.
“This result now means we have an uphill battle in the next three games right up until the end of the season – and we know that.
“We have to pick ourselves up even though we are in a difficult situation. We have to hope that other teams around us lose games and then we have to go out and try and win our own games.
“That is what we have to do if we want to have a chance of staying in the league.”
The victory for Preston was their second in five matches under interim head coach Frankie McAvoy, who is relishing every moment in charge of the club he loves.
“I thought we were extremely disciplined right from the start tonight,” said McAvoy. “We knew it was a big game and the first goal would be crucial to the game.
“We had to then go on and weather a bit of a storm in the first 15 minutes after the break, but we stood up to it, got the second goal and the third goal was the icing on the cake.
“That means we now have three clean sheets from five games and the lads deserve a lot of credit for that. I cannot ask any more from the lads, their team spirit has been magnificent.
“That goes a long way. I love being here and I love the club. They have given me an opportunity and a chance for eight games here.
“I am an honest character and I will continue to give it everything for the next three games. After that, we will see, but I am enjoying it.