Chelsea looked set to drop points for the second successive league match before returning captain John Terry popped up right at the death to turn home Frank Lampard's cross and inflict a 1-0 defeat upon unlucky Everton.
That late drama in the day's early kick-off put Jose Mourinho's men four points clear at the summit ahead of the 3pm fixtures, but Arsenal and City both responded with home wins of their own.
They did so in wildly contrasting fashion though, unlike in midweek when they suffered almost identical 2-0 home defeats in their Champions League last-16 first legs.
Arsenal, fresh from being beaten by reigning European champions Bayern Munich, cruised to a 4-1 victory over Sunderland that took them back to within a point of Chelsea.
The game was all but over by half-time with Olivier Giroud netting twice before Tomas Rosicky made it 3-0 in the 42nd minute.
Arsene Wenger's men did not stop there and Laurent Koscielny added a fourth before third-bottom Sunderland pulled a late consolation back through Emanuele Giaccherini.
Manchester City, however, did not have it nearly as comfortable against their former manager Mark Hughes' Stoke.
Looking to bounce back from their European loss to Barcelona, Manuel Pellegrini's men were frustrated during a goalless first half and were indebted to a 70th-minute strike from Yaya Toure - his 13th league goal of the season - to get the 1-0 win.
City, who play Sunderland in the Capital One Cup final next weekend, remain two points behind Arsenal but have a game in hand.
Wayne Rooney celebrated his new deal with a fine goal as Manchester United overcame a spirited Crystal Palace side 2-0 at Selhurst Park.
All eyes were on the England striker a day after he agreed a lucrative contract extension, but Palace battled hard to keep United at bay.
The breakthrough arrived just after the hour mark when Patrice Evra was brought down by Marouane Chamakh and Robin van Persie stepped up to score from the penalty spot.
Rooney then showed expert technique to volley wonderfully into the top corner from Evra's left-wing cross on 68 minutes, as United sealed a crucial victory in their bid to reel in the top four.
At the other end of the table, Fulham came within four minutes of a much-needed victory in new manager Felix Magath's first game in charge, only to have to settle for a 1-1 draw at fellow strugglers West Brom.
The Cottagers looked set to climb off the foot of the table after taking a 28th-minute lead through Ashkan Dejagah but they were denied a first victory in eight league and cup games by an 86th-minute equaliser from Matej Vydra.
That goal kept Fulham in last place but they are now only a point behind Cardiff after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men were thrashed 4-0 at home by Hull.
Nikica Jelavic notched twice for Steve Bruce's side, between goals from Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore, as Hull moved six points clear of 18th-placed Sunderland .
In the other mid-afternoon kick-off, upwardly-mobile West Ham continued their impressive recent form with 3-1 a home win over Southampton.
Visiting Southampton took an eighth-minute lead through Maya Yoshida but West Ham replied with goals from Matt Jarvis, Carlton Cole and Kevin Nolan to secure their fourth successive win.
Premier League match reports: