A Lewis Grabban brace secured a fine first league win for Simon Grayson at Carrow Road.
Aiden McGeady was also on the scoresheet with a stunning goal for the Black Cats, who had to hang on in the closing stages but deserved the win after a fine defensive display.
Norwich's extra preparation time showed as they put the visitors under all sorts of pressure, pulling one back through a Grabban own goal and threatening regularly in a frenetic final ten.
Sunderland were fortunate not to concede again but left with three valuable points.
Grayson had admitted in the build-up that Daniel Farke's Norwich City were something of a mystery, and the Canaries quickly gave notice of their threat in an impressive opening spell.
Yanic Wilschut was making inroads from right wing-back, with Cameron Jerome and Marley Watkins causing problems for Sunderland's central defenders.
They could easily have taken the lead in the opening period, with James Maddison's free-kick deflected wide. Jason Steele had to save well from Russell Martin, the Black Cats keeper seeing his defence pulled apart moments later by a superb move. Jerome converted, but had timed his run poorly and the flag had long been raised.
When the opener came it was against the run of play, though the Canaries had been warned when a poor pass allowed James Vaughan to free Lewis Grabban. The striker could only find the side netting, but was on the scoresheet soon after. A long ball from Steele was headed on by Vaughan, who had pulled two defenders towards him. Grabban attacked the space and finished well past Angus Gunn.
Norwich continued to dominate possession but Sunderland were settled by the goal, sitting deep and picking their moments to press.
They came closest as the half wound down, with James Vaughan and George Honeyman just unable to connect with fine deliveries from Aiden McGeady.
Wildschut began the second half much as he had the first, causing serious problems down the right flank. Norwich came close when Marcel Franke headed a free-kick narrowly wide, Sunderland threatening at the other end as Vaughan's cross just eluded Grabban.
Russell Martin ought to have equalised on the hour mark, missing a free header as Maddison's corner reached the back post.
The game was on a knife edge before a quite sensational intervention from Aiden McGeady.
The Irish winger won a corner when he surged to the byline a fine cross headed behind by Martin. Honeyman's corner was tame, headed to the edge of the area. There Cattermole teed up the 31-year-old, who fired the effort into the top corner.
His delivery had been superb all afternoon, and he helped put Sunderland 3-0 up with an excellent cross to the back post, headed home from close range by Grabban.
If that looked like it would be game over, it proved to be far from that simple.
Norwich pulled one back when Grabban could only turn a deep cross into his own goal, and Martin then struck the post following a good Steele save.
Substitute Wes Hoolahan was showing his quality but the Black Cats, now playing with no attackers, saw it out.