Substitute keeper Lee Camp ensured 10-man Norwich left Sunderland with a point after a 1-1 draw, on a day when the Canaries' luck deserted them.
Chris Hughton's men were leading 1-0 at the Stadium of Light through Wes Hoolahan's close-range header when keeper Mark Bunn was dismissed for handling outside his area, and their fortunes took a further turn for the worse five minutes before the break when defender Sebastien Bassong conceded a penalty.
Craig Gardner levelled from the spot and then forced a vital 59th-minute save from Camp as the Black Cats strove in vain for the goal they needed to secure a first win in seven Barclays Premier League games.
However, Norwich left Wearside believing they should have been awarded a 70th-minute penalty for handball against Danny Rose in an eventful encounter.
It was a game Sunderland simply had to win after slipping to 16th place in the table as a result of their barren run, although they kicked off holding a six-point cushion over the sides in the bottom three.
Norwich arrived on Wearside three points better off, but with only one win in their last 12 league games and needing a positive result to kick-start their season once again.
The home side started positively and might have gone ahead had Bunn not raced from his line to block Danny Graham's effort at point-blank range after the striker had climbed well to meet Gardner's free-kick and then latched on to the loose ball.
Skipper John O'Shea was unable to climb high enough at the far post to keep his header down from Adam Johnson's 15th-minute corner with the Black Cats pressing.
However, as the Canaries settled into the game, they started to string passes together and, with midfielder Elliott Bennett giving full-back Rose a stern examination on his return from injury, they began to make an impression.
Stephane Sessegnon sliced wastefully wide after the ball sat up nicely for him inside the Norwich penalty area with 22 minutes gone, but it was the visitors who struck four minutes later.
Striker Kei Kamara was allowed to meet Robert Snodgrass' right-wing corner - the last of three in quick succession - with a firm header which was turned past keeper Simon Mignolet on the line by Hoolahan.
The reaction inside the Stadium of Light was one of intense frustration, but the home side were handed a lifeline within three minutes.
Graham, enjoying one of his better games in a red and white shirt, chased down a ball over the top and got to it marginally before the advancing Bunn, who blocked with his arm as he raced from his area.
Referee Chris Foy had little option but to produce a red card, much to the keeper's fury, and he made little secret of his feelings as he reluctantly left the pitch.
Norwich's fortunes were to take a further turn for the worse five minutes before the break when Bassong handled as he attempted to control O'Shea's pass on his chest and Gardner stepped up to smash the resulting penalty past replacement keeper Camp.
The newcomer made a fine diving save to keep out Johnson's 42nd-minute piledriver with Graham scuffing the rebound across the face of goal, and was relieved to see Rose's injury-time effort clip the outside of the post and run to safety.
Sunderland returned in determined fashion as they attempted to make the most of their numerical advantage, but Norwich were stubborn in defence with Bassong and Black Cats old boy Michael Turner proving equal to the task as a series of crosses was delivered into the box.
Bassong made a vital interception to prevent Steven Fletcher from connecting with Gardner's low 53rd-minute cross, and the full-back curled a left-foot effort from distance into Camp's arms seconds later with O'Neill's men dominating.
Gardner was revelling in the extra space afforded to him by Norwich's relative lack of personnel and he repeatedly turned up in advanced positions down the right, prompting Camp to make a good fingertip save with a 59th-minute thunderbolt.
Camp distinguished himself once again to claim Johnson's strike from distance two minutes later, and his side were appealing in vain for a penalty with 20 minutes remaining when Russell Martin's cross hit Rose's arm, in referee Foy's opinion, inches outside the box.
The Canaries should have been in front two minutes later when substitute Titus Bramble allowed Grant Holt to escape from his grasp and run in on goal, but his touch was heavy and Mignolet managed to intervene.
Sessegnon had a glorious opportunity to snatch the win with three minutes remaining when Gardner's cross was deflected into his path, but he dragged his effort wide of the far post.