After tripping over themselves for the entire first half, the Ravens hit their stride yesterday with the help of two unlikely heroes.
On the legs of return specialist B.J. Sams and running back Jamal Lewis - who hadn't been impact players this season - the Ravens charged past the Atlanta Falcons, 24-10, before 70,790 at M&T Bank Stadium.
Sams set up two pivotal drives in the second half, returning a punt 59 yards and running back a kickoff 59 yards. Lewis was the one who finished them off, tying a career high with three touchdown runs.
It was a momentum-changing combination that allowed the Ravens to keep their commanding three-game lead in the AFC North and moved them closer to the No. 1 seed in the conference. Off to the best start in the team's 11-year history, the Ravens (8-2) are one game behind the Indianapolis Colts (9-1) for the top record in the AFC.
The spark for the Ravens' fourth straight win came from Sams, who ranked 18th in the NFL in punt returns and seventh in kickoff returns.
Spinning out of trouble and bursting through the open lanes, Sams proved to be the most elusive player on the field, even more than fleet-footed Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. Sams finished with 212 total return yards, the fourth most in Ravens history and the third most in the NFL this season.
"It's a new beginning for us," Sams said, "and I'm on a good path."
The path was more crowded for Lewis, who powered his way to his most impressive performance of the season.
After gaining 12 yards on six carries in the first half - which had been his norm for the year - Lewis began to drive his legs in the second, gaining 79 yards on 16 attempts. He proved to be unstoppable in the red zone, scoring touchdowns from 2, 16 and 5 yards as the Ravens outscored Atlanta 24-3 in the second half.
"You could tell when his knees are coming up and he's hitting the hole, nobody wants to see him coming through like that," tight end Todd Heap said.
The biggest scare for the Ravens yesterday was enduring a slow start for the second straight week. Their first-half troubles included quarterback Steve McNair fumbling at the Atlanta 14-yard line, the offensive line committing four false starts and kicker Matt Stover ending the NFL's third-longest field-goal streak at 36.
Trailing 7-0 at halftime, coach Brian Billick didn't have to deliver a scolding speech.
"The players were going off more than Billick," Heap said. "We had guys speaking up, saying our main focus is not to shoot ourselves in the foot."
The Ravens closed the deficit on their opening drive of the second half with Stover's 29-yard field goal, but the turning point came one series later with Sams.
Backpedaling to catch a deep punt, Sams swerved and side-stepped nearly the entire Falcons coverage team, racing 59 yards to the Falcons' 17-yard line.
On that drive, Lewis caught a 5-yard pass on fourth down and then scored on a 2-yard run, putting the Ravens ahead 10-7 with 4:32 left in the third quarter.
"Jamal came out with an attitude today and he showed that on the field," McNair said. "We can do so much when Jamal is on top of his game."
After Atlanta answered to tie the game at 10, Sams returned the kickoff 59 yards to the Falcons' 37. Heap caught a 9-yard pass and Lewis did the rest, running for 12 yards and then 16, bouncing off a tackler and into the end zone, giving the Ravens the lead again at 17-10.
Lewis finished with 91 yards on 22 carries and it didn't matter that the Atlanta defense was missing four injured starters. The Ravens were playing with two guards - Jason Brown and Chris Chester - who were backups at the beginning of the season.
"A couple of times out there it felt like old times," said Lewis, who ranked 23rd in rushing before the game. "The defense was tired and we took advantage of that. I knew they were tired if I was tired."
The Ravens sealed the game with authority, marching 87 yards on 15 plays. It took an eight-minute, nine-second chunk out of the fourth quarter.
Lewis punched the ball in from 5 yards on his eighth carry of the series, increasing the Ravens' margin to 24-10.
"That's what Baltimore offense is all about," Lewis said.
The trademark of the Ravens has always been a strong running game and a fearsome defense.
Without middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the Ravens held the NFL's top rushing attack to a season-low 104 yards. The Ravens also put constant pressure on Vick, sacking the Atlanta quarterback five times.
"They give pressure to the quarterback and I think that's the thing they take pride in, especially without their leader out there on the field," Vick said. "I think that was their main goal, to put pressure on me, make us try to beat them through the air and put us in third-and-long situations - which they did."
The Ravens continue to have success even though they know they have yet to play up to their potential. In matching their longest winning streak of the season, the Ravens have had strong halves but no complete games.
But it's the Ravens' ability to bounce back in the second half of games that makes this team special in the players' minds.
"I know that teams that I played on that went to the Super Bowl never panicked no matter what happened because we knew what we were capable of," said Pryce, who won two championships with the Denver Broncos. "And I see that with this team."