Not since the halcyon days under now-Derby boss Steve McClaren, highlighted by a League Cup win and UEFA Cup final appearance, have Boro fans had so much to feel optimistic about.
And Aitor Karanka’s men came out on top thanks to a stellar performance from former County loanee Patrick Bamford, who scored eight times in 21 appearances during a spell at Pride Park last year.
Having set Boro on their way in the sixth minute, the Chelsea man – whose deal runs until the new year – won a second-half penalty that Grant Leadbitter converted.
Down to 10 men after Ryan Shotton had been dismissed in the build-up to the spot-kick, Derby could not find a response as McClaren lost on Teesside for the second successive campaign.
That left his former club looking down on the rest of the league, at least for a few hours until Bournemouth returned to the top of the Championship on goals scored following victory over Cardiff.
Middlesbrough enjoyed a flying start as they took the lead through Bamford.
After finding space with some clever movement, the striker was left with the simple task of diverting Adam Reach’s clever pull-back in off the post for a sixth goal in seven games.
Derby looked rattled as their usually-crisp passing game faltered.
And they would have fallen further behind but for a stunning double-save by Lee Grant.
Having denied Bamford following a Leadbitter through-ball, the goalkeeper produced a stunning one-handed stop on the stretch to turn Jelle Vossen’s follow-up effort over the crossbar.
Undeterred, Boro continued to push forward, with Adam Reach hitting a 20-yard strike narrowly over crossbar.
The one-way traffic did not relent for the remainder of the half, although Derby were nearly gifted a leveller.
Dimi Konstantopoulos’ poor clearance flew straight to Johnny Russell, who fed Jeff Hendrick. However, the midfielder’s weak effort gave the goalkeeper an easy opportunity to atone.
McClaren made a double change at the interval in an attempt to spark a reversal of fortunes, Jordon Ibe and Leon Best replacing Simon Dawkins and Omar Mascarell.
Middlesbrough remained in the ascendancy, though, with Grant brilliantly keeping out a Leadbitter free-kick that had just evaded Daniel Ayala.
Boro were not made to pay for their misses, Shotton bringing down Bamford in the area following Vossen’s superb pass – allowing Leadbitter to hammer home from the spot.
The ever-dangerous Bamford twice stung the hands of Grant afterwards, yet it mattered little as Middlesbrough took the points – albeit with the help of a superb Konstantopoulos save that stopped Craig Bryson setting up a tense finale.