Is the system creaking with a hint of wear and tear, or did Donegal just find a different way of winning without some of their most important players?
That is the question that will occupy the minds of whoever emerges next Saturday night to meet Donegal in the Ulster final.
Even before the match they were already missing the 2012 Player of the Year Karl Lacey and All-Star Neil Gallagher. Half-time hadn't arrived and Ryan Bradley and Frank McGlynn were off with concussion.
Yet, when the opportunity was there for a Down win, Donegal's concentration pulled them through.
It took them 50 minutes to register their first wide and although they added three more in the remainder of the game, that statistic is a reflection of how they always live inside the moment.
With Peter Turley, Mark Poland and Benny Coulter running at the All-Ireland champions, Donegal looked vulnerable.
When it comes down to it, they will think back to Donal O'Hare's free that hit the post. Or Ryan Mallon's fumble when they had a glimpse of a goal. They may have hit only two wides, but four shots dropped short; one in particular an inexplicable from Benny Coulter when he was caught in two minds.
There was much to admire from Down.
In giving a new lease of life to the old adage, 'if you can't beat them, join them', they set up a spider-web defence that Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher might nod appreciatively along to.
Once the natural rhythm of the game was established, they were comfortable with Donegal working the ball upfield, getting their defensive phalanx in place.
They forced turnovers like no Down team ever before, and nobody was more active in that endeavour than Conor Laverty.
It was clear that Laverty was targeted as a threat.
He was hit off the ball by Ryan Bradley, forcing Eddie Kinsella to have a word at the next break, and both Eamon McGee and David Walsh were booked for inflicting neck-high challenges on the Kilcoo man.
Occasionally, you realised that they still have some way to go.
Deep in first half injury time Mark Poland made a darting break.
He was impeded by a cynical foul from Frank McGlynn who went straight into the book. Next year that will be a black card but for now, the rules allow this sort of thing.
It took a quarter of an hour for Down to get off the mark, when Neil McGee, Anthony Thompson and Mark McHugh surrounded Benny Coulter in a rare possession in an advanced position.
Kinsella whistled for the free and Donal O'Hare nailed it.
By then Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden had chalked up two points each, one from play, one from a free.
Two dummies and drawing a foul from Leo McLoone earned Laverty a free that O'Hare chalked up to leave two between them, followed immediately by a rapid response from Donegal.
Murphy converted his own free before David Walsh robbed Peter Turley's hand-pass as Down were building an attack to shepherd the ball to the otherwise off-colour Patrick McBrearty who produced a brilliant point.
The second half was poised but Down were already two behind. Ryan McHugh replaced McGlynn to go tight on Laverty.
A quick-thinking sideline from Murphy resulted in Rory Kavanagh spearing the ball between the posts and the scores went tit-for-tat through the second period.
Try as they might, Down never narrowed that gap to one point.
A botched handpass between Turley and McKernan ended up with a Colm McFadden point.
He was on hand on 56 minutes again when McKernan and O'Hare fluffed a simple pass and his left foot delivered a crushing blow, once again putting three between them.
James McCartan's (pictured) men pushed and heaved and jammed themselves up there, but indecision continued to cost them.
O'Hare's free would have narrowed the gap to one, but instead it hit the post and Jerome Johnston's foul of Mark McHugh cost them a pointed Murphy free, who rounded off the day with another dead ball hit somewhere in Bryan Sheehan territory, to seal it for the champions.
As ever, Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher will plant themselves somewhere in the Gerry Arthurs Stand in Clones on Saturday night to check out whether it will be Cavan or Monaghan they will be meeting in their third consecutive Ulster final.
Down's fate is less glamorous as they eye up a round two qualifier.
Such are the margins.
Donegal: P Durcan; P McGrath, N McGee, E McGee; Declan Walsh, F McGlynn, A Thompson; R Bradley 0-1, R Kavanagh; David Walsh, L McLoone, M McHugh; P McBrearty 0-1, M Murphy [Capt] 0-5, (4f), C McFadden 0-5 (2f). Subs: M O'Reilly for David Walsh, M McElhinney for Bradley [34m], R McHugh for McGlynn [half-time], R Wherity for McLoone [45m], D Molloy for McBrearty [64m]
Yellow cards: E McGee (26m), David Walsh (29m), McGlynn (37m), Declan Walsh (68m)
Down: B McVeigh; D McCartan, B McArdle, K Quinn; D Rooney, P Turley, R Boyle; K King, K McKernan; A Rogers, M Poland [Capt] 0-1, N Madine; C Laverty, B Coulter, D O'Hare 0-6 (5f). Subs: R Mallon for Quinn [49m], J Johnston 0-1 for Coulter [56m], D Savage 0-1 (1f) for Madine [61m],
Yellow cards: Quinn [12m], Johnston [60m], O'Hare [67m]
Referee: Eddie Kinsella, Laois