Then B.J. Sams kick-started the Baltimore attack with two long returns, and the Ravens pulled away to a 24-10 victory.
Sams returned six kicks for 212 yards and Jamal Lewis tied a career high with three touchdowns to lead the Ravens (8-2) to their fourth straight win.
"Huge," Baltimore coach Brian Billick said of Sams' returns. "B.J. Sams put us in position time and time again."
After being held scoreless in the first half, the Ravens trailed 7-3 early in the third quarter before forcing an Atlanta punt. Sams juked, stutter-stepped and spun his way 59 yards to the Atlanta 17.
"I started to my left and hit the seam up the middle and my blockers were there," Sams said. "It came out perfect."
Lewis caught a swing pass for 5 yards on a fourth-and-1, then scored from the 2 on third down to give Baltimore its first lead.
Morten Andersen answered with a 21-yard field goal to tie it at 10, but Sams took the ensuing kickoff 59 yards to the Atlanta 37. Three plays later, Lewis backed into the end zone to end a 16-yard run that put Baltimore ahead for good.
"You get that kind of field position, you win," Ravens center Mike Flynn said. "We didn't have to drive the length of the field the way they did."
The Ravens clinched it with an 87-yard drive that lasted more than eight minutes. Lewis finished the 15-play march with a 5-yard touchdown run with 3:02 left.
Lewis ran for 91 yards on 22 carries.
"A couple of times out there, it kind of felt like old times," said Lewis, who amassed 2,066 yards rushing in 2003. "It's really not me, just the offensive line pushing guys down the field. Their defense was tired and we kind of took advantage of that in the fourth quarter."
Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick ran for 54 yards on six carries, but was sacked five times for 45 yards in losses and completed only 11 of 27 passes for 127 yards. The performance came against a Baltimore defense that played a second straight game without injured middle linebacker Ray Lewis (back).
"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 Falcons (5-5) have lost three in a row. Atlanta's defense was without injured ends John Abraham and Patrick Kerney, linebacker Edgerton Hartwell, and cornerbacks Jimmy Williams and Jason Webster.
"We played great first-half defense. We shut down their running game and forced them to throw the ball. We were getting to the quarterback a couple of times," Falcons defensive end Paul Carrington said. "But basically, in the fourth quarter, they kind of started pounding it, pounding it. The defense kind of wore down."
Down 7-0 at halftime, the Ravens' slumbering offense finally stirred during the opening series of the third quarter. A 42-yard pass from Steve McNair to Mark Clayton set up a 29-yard field goal by Matt Stover, who earlier had his run of 36 straight field goals end with a misfire from 42 yards out.
McNair went 24 for 34 for 236 yards.
It foreshadowed a miserable half for the Ravens, who left the field to a chorus of jeers. Baltimore received four false-start penalties, gained 7 yards on nine rushing attempts and blew another chance to score when McNair followed a 65-yard punt return by Sams with a fumble at the Atlanta 14.
"Special teams were huge," Billick said. "We didn't take as much advantage as we should have, but it kept us in position where we could just keep chipping away."
The only first-half score came late in the first quarter, when a 36-yard punt return by Allen Rossum set up a 13-yard touchdown pass from Vick to Michael Jenkins.
Rossum, however, was outdone by Sams.
"He's a great returner," Rossum said. "He definitely came out and showed us what we've seen on the films."
Notes: Ravens TE Daniel Wilcox left with a hamstring injury and did not return. ... Andersen played in his NFL-record 362nd game. He needs eight more PATs to pass Gary Anderson for second-most in league history ... Jenkins has scored four TDs in a five-game stretch.