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.
"If we're going to the Super Bowl, we have to do what we did today - get contributions from everyone," Ravens center Mike Flynn said.
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.
"That's as big as they come," defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "I think he'll be on ESPN all week."
Said special teams standout Gary Stills: "B.J. Sams made that happen with very few blocks. I'm not going to say he did that all by himself, but he did 70 percent of it."
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.
Ravens 24, Falcons 10