Factor in a gritty defense that continually body-slammed athletic Falcons quarterback Michael Vick despite middle linebacker Ray Lewis being out again with a severely bruised back, and the Ravens were uniquely equipped to manufacture a 24-10 victory Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
The combination of all three phases propelled the Ravens (8-2) to their fourth consecutive victory since coach Brian Billick fired Jim Fassel and assumed offensive coordinator duties.
Following a punchless first half where Baltimore trailed 7-0, it was Sams who energized the offense with electrifying punt and kickoff returns to finish with 212 yards as the Ravens outscored the Falcons 21-3 after halftime.
It was Lewis, though, who set an intimidating, physical tone he has rarely captured since his NFL Offensive Player of the Year campaign in 2003 when he gained 2,066 yards.
The former Pro Bowl runner tied a career-high by rushing for three touchdowns, all in the second half, to finish with 91 yards on 22 carries after gaining just 12 yards on six carries by halftime.
"The coaches told us to be physical, execute and that we were going to run the football," said Lewis, whose only other three-touchdown game happened on Dec. 7, 2003 against the Cincinnati Bengals. "I think the offensive line took that to heart. A couple of times out there, it kind of felt like old times.
"It's really not me. It's the offensive line just pushing the guys down the field. I knew [the Falcons] were tired if I was tired."
Although Lewis busted off left guard untouched in the third quarter for a 2-yard touchdown and ricocheted off hard-hitting safety Lawyer Milloy for another score minutes later on a 16-yard burst, it was the fourth quarter where he truly showed his mettle.
With Baltimore marching 15 plays for 87 yards late in the fourth quarter to drain 8:09, Lewis carried it eight times for 38 yards and powered up the middle five yards for a touchdown to clinch the game.
"I think he came out with an attitude, and it showed," said quarterback Steve McNair, who completed 24 of 34 passes for 236 yards. "We can do so much when Jamal is on top of his game.
"It makes my job a lot easier. I think I cheated Steve Bisciotti. I didn't do too much. Jamal was determined to get that extra yard even when he had three guys on his back."
The offensive line opened up gaping holes throughout the second half. By the middle of the third quarter, beefy Falcons 350-pound nose guard Grady Jackson was gasping for air and even more immobile than usual.
"That last drive was a grinder for them," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "We made a little more of a commitment to run the ball in the second half."
Sams' 59-yard punt return where he juked defenders off their feet and spun down to the Falcons' 17 set up Lewis' first touchdown run.
"I started to my left and hit the seam up the middle and my blockers were there," Sams said. "It came out perfect. Their punter was suspect."
Baltimore operated with an element of surprise on 4th-and-1 from the Falcons' 8 as McNair faked it to Lewis and then hit him in stride with a swing pass for five yards. Three plays later, Lewis scored easily to give Baltimore its first lead as the Falcons overreacted to a spread formation.
"Brian told me if Jamal outflanked his defender, give it to him," McNair said of the fourth-down conversion. "Just like handing off, he can run over one guy."
Although Falcons kicker Morten Anderson immediately answered with a 21-yard field goal to tie the game at 10-10, Sams wasn't done.
He ripped off a 59-yard kickoff return for an encore. Three plays later, Lewis bounced into the end zone for his second touchdown.
"Jamal is definitely hungry," fullback Ovie Mughelli said. "In my opinion, he's still the same back that he was in 2003. He didn't go anywhere."
Neither did Vick most of the time.
Although he finished with 54 rushing yards and threw a 13-yard touchdown to Michael Jenkins with cornerback Samari Rolle trailing the play in the first half, the Ravens sacked Vick five times for 45 yards in losses.
Vick completed only 11 of 27 passes for 127 yards as the Ravens contained the Atlanta offense with Lewis out and converted outside linebacker/defensive end Jarret Johnson starting at inside linebacker with Bart Scott occupying Lewis' spot in the middle.
"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 loss marks the injury-depleted Falcons' third in a row.
Falcons coach Jim Mora made a questionable gamble that backfired on the opening series, going for it on 4th-and-1 at his own 39 as Warrick Dunn was tackled for a loss.
However, Matt Stover missed wide of the left upright for his first unsuccessful field goal try since Oct. 31, 2005 to break an NFL-best streak of 36 in a row. He later hit a 29-yard field goal to get Baltimore on the scoreboard in the third quarter.
The big-picture for Baltimore was having enough resolve to overcome a sloppy first half that ended with them being booed as they ran into the locker room at halftime.
The memory of four false-start penalties, seven rushing yards on nine attempts and a fumbled snap by McNair at the Falcons' 14-yard line following Sams' 65-yard punt return from Sams quickly faded with a resurgent second half.
This represents the second consecutive victory where the Ravens had to overcome a halftime deficit.
"At this juncture of the season being 8-2 you have to feel good about where you're heading," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "We didn't come out with the fire that we had in previous games. It was more or less self-destructive.
"It's going to be a dogfight from here on out, so we have to be willing to step up to the plate and knock out home runs. As a group, we lift each other up."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.
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