The Royals were undone by a fluid Preston side who took their chances well at Deepdale and sent Reading home with nothing to show for their efforts in Lancashire.
North End took the lead against the run of play when Tom Barkhuizen swept a superb effort past the dive of Ali Al Habsi and into the top left corner - and it was 2-0 before half-time after Daryl Horgan had found a way past the Omani at the second attempt to give the hosts a comfortable lead at the break.
And they added to that with a third goal early in the second period, Barkhuizen stabbing home from close range after a downward header had dropped to him on the edge of the six yard box. Reading tried to find a way back into the game, but nothing was going the away side's way and a trip to Deepdale would see us lose ground to a chasing pack.
Royals boss Jaap Stam made two injury-enforced changes to the eleven that started in our stalemate against the league leaders earlier in the week. Jordan Obita came into the back line to start on the left, allowing Tyler Blackett to take up a central position in place of the injured Liam Moore at the back. Liam Kelly also misses out on the trip to Deepdale with a hamstring injury, so John Swift started in midfield.
The first shot at goal came from a Reading boot, Lewis Grabban skipping into space and letting rip 25 yards out, only to see his effort sail just over the crossbar and behind for a goal kick.
Chris Maxwell was called into action four minutes later when Grabban led a charge from Reading's half. He fed obita to his left who cut inside and took aim, but the Preston keeper was well behind the full-back's sweetly-struck attempt.
Tom Barkhuizen had the hosts' first attempt at goal, cutting onto his left foot and curling a shot from the edge of the box harmlessly over Al Habsi's goalmouth.
But Reading were keeping posession and looking dangerous in the final third - Maxwell produced a flying fingertip save to push a fearsome McCleary shot wide of his post when the strike looked destined for the top left corner.
From the resultant corner, the Royals came even closer when Swift's deep delivery was met by a volley from the unmarked Kermorgant but a fine block from North End skipper Tom Clarke did enough to clear the Frenchman's placed effort.
Reading had another chance with 25 minutes gone. Breaking through McCleary's flick into Swift's path, the midfielder threaded a ball into Mutch who sidefooted a first time effort inches wide of the left upright. And the Royals were breaking at pace again through McCleary down the left moments later. He pulled the ball back to Kermorgant who scuffed an effort wide from 20 yards out.
The lively Aiden McGeady twisted and turned to the right side of the Royals box and forced a parried save from Al Habsi when he took aim. And against the run of play, Barkhuizen gave the home side the lead when Preston got in behind down the right and pulled the ball back for Barkhuizen who swept a superb right-footed shot past Al Habsi's dive and into the top left corner.
North End had another before half-time, catching Reading on the counter attack. Barkhuizen ghosted through the Royals midfield and had the momentum to burst past the backpedalling Gunter. Turning back inside it fell kindly for Horgan to shoot and while his first was blocked by Obita in the six yard box, the ball rebounded back to him and Ali Al Habsi got a left glove to his low shot but couldn't keep it out.
Maxwell did well to keep out a swerving McCleary drive from distance and the rebound fell to a Preston defender who could clear the danger, but three minutes of added time elapsed and the Royals went into the dressing room with work to do.
Half-time: Preston 2-0 Reading
Any hopes of a Royals comeback were torn up when Barkhuizen added a third. Obita conceded a free kick 30 yards out and a floated ball into the box was headed back into the middle at the far post and Barkhuizen deftly flicked the ball home from six yards out to make it 3-0.
Reading urgently tried to find a goal that might give the away fans some hope, Swift finding a nice pass into Van den Berg only for the midfielder's touch to let him down before he could get a shot away.
Then, with ten minutes of the second half gone, Grabban made good progress down the right to pull the ball back for Kermorgant, but a Preston leg did enough to deny the striker a clean shot at goal.
Kermorgant then tried to turn provider, racing onto a nice throughball down the left and crossing deep to Grabban whose first time volley was high and wide. Williams cut inside to test Maxwell's handling with a low drive, but Al Habsi had to save from McGeady after he got in behind down the left and shot at goal from the narrowest of angles.
McGeady came a whisker away from another for the home side when his set piece whistled just wide with 25 minutes left on the clock. Then Maxwell had to punch a McCleary cross away at the other end as Kermorgant flew in with his head.
But Preston had a huge lead to defend and were comfortable in doing so. After a promising start, it had turned into a day for forget for the Royals and a long drive home. The play-off challenge now has to resume at Hillsborough on Friday night.
Full-time: Preston 3-0 Reading
Preston: Maxwell, Clarke, Boyle, Huntington, Cunningham, Horgan (Browne 60), Johnson, Pearson, McGeady, Barkhuizen (Robinson 76), Hugill (Beckford 87).
Subs: Lindegaard, Spurr, May, Makienok.
Goals: Barkhuizen (31, 48), Horgan (40)
Reading: Al-Habsi, Gunter, Obita, McShane (c) (Oxford 72), Blackett, Van den Berg, Swift, Mutch (Williams 33), McCleary, Grabban (Beerens 77), Kermorgant.
Subs: Jaakkola, Evans, Popa, Meite.