Fernando Torres scored twice as Chelsea secured a first Premier League win in eight games and ensured Sunderland dropped into the relegation zone.
The Blues dominated early on and a classy Torres volley made it 1-0.
Torres back on track?
Fernando Torres's first-half strike was his first Premier League goal in 12-and-a-half hours.
But the Spaniard has still scored 11 goals in 25 games for the Blues this season.
Sunderland responded but a rash tackle by Sebastian Larsson gifted Torres a second from the penalty spot and Juan Mata drove in a third after the break.
Adam Johnson's fine shot gave the hosts hope but Chelsea held on to give Rafael Benitez a first league win as boss.
It was the Spaniard's first Premier League victory in four attempts as interim manager but it increases the pressure on counterpart Martin O'Neill, whose side have won only two games in 23 league matches and have slipped to 18th place in the table following
Southampton's win over Reading.
A dismal run of form had left a 10-point gap between Chelsea and leaders Manchester United at the start of the day.
But with no wins in seven league games and an enforced break because of the World Club Cup in Japan, defeat against a hopelessly out-of-form Black Cats side would surely have ended their title chances.
That never looked likely as Chelsea established control from the outset.
Eden Hazard appeared unfortunate not to win a penalty when Larsson tugged him back as the Belgian raced through on goal and Mata and Torres both had decent openings.
But Torres soon steered the visitors ahead with a beautifully controlled volley from Hazard's cross after a flowing move.
Chelsea's rhythm was disrupted when holding midfielder Oriol Romeu was forced off after 20 minutes with what appeared to be a knee injury.
Jonathan PearceBBC Match of the Day commentator
Chelsea made harder work of it than they would have liked in the end but Torres was brave to take the penalty.
Sunderland, after being outgunned in midfield to start with, made a game of it despite being 3-0 down. Johnson scored a good goal but they couldn't fight back.
And, having been completely outplayed, Sunderland suddenly upped the tempo.
They started to press further up the pitch, denying the visitors space in their own half and forcing mistakes.
O'Neill's side still struggled to create clear chances, but Stephane Sessegnon tested keeper Petr Cech with a swerving long-range effort and there were a couple of nervy moments in the Blues defence.
Three minutes after the restart Mata had made it 3-0, calmly shooting into the far corner when after an instinctive first-time Torres strike crashed back off the bar after a Phil Bardsley mis-kick.
Victor Moses almost added a fourth soon after but Johnson's breathtaking strike across Cech gave the hosts hope with 25 minutes left.
Sunderland desire pleases O'Neill
And suddenly Chelsea started to look shaky.
David Luiz and Gary Cahill both made important defensive interceptions as Sunderland dominated territory.
Johnson forced a fine save from Cech from a 25-yard free-kick, Connor Wickham - who started in place of the injured Steven Fletcher up front - went close with a low shot across goal and Craig Gardner struck the bar with a powerful free-kick.
But Sunderland were left to rue their defensive shortcomings and unable to prevent a 15th defeat in 16 games against Chelsea, who head off to Japan in a much better frame of mind after a turbulent few weeks.
The Blues, who begin their World Club Cup campaign on Thursday, will also have midfielder Frank Lampard fit and available after his late appearance as a substitute following seven weeks out with a calf injury.
Full Time The final whistle goes and the game is over.
James McClean crosses the ball, clearance by Ashley Cole.
Connor Wickham takes a shot. Save made by Petr Cech. Corner taken left-footed by James McClean to the near post, clearance by Emboaba Oscar. Ashley Cole concedes a free kick for a foul on Craig Gardner. Direct strike on goal from the free kick comes in from Craig Gardner, Effort from the edge of the box by Jack Colback goes wide of the left-hand post. Save by Petr Cech.
Danny Rose crosses the ball, clearance made by Ashley Cole.
Simon Mignolet restarts play with the free kick.
Booking Juan Mata receives a yellow card.
Free kick awarded for a foul by Juan Mata on Jack Colback.
Direct free kick taken by Craig Gardner. The referee blows for offside. Free kick taken by Simon Mignolet.
Booking The referee shows Nascimento Ramires a yellow card.
Free kick awarded for an unfair challenge on Louis Saha by Nascimento Ramires.
Frank Lampard takes a shot. Save by Simon Mignolet.
Craig Gardner produces a cross, Branislav Ivanovic makes a clearance. James McClean sends in a cross, save by Petr Cech.
Craig Gardner restarts play with the free kick.
Substitution Louis Saha comes on in place of Sebastian Larsson.
Emboaba Oscar challenges Sebastian Larsson unfairly and gives away a free kick.
Handball decision goes against Fernando Torres. Simon Mignolet takes the free kick.
Substitution Frank Lampard on for Eden Hazard.
Fernando Torres produces a cross, clearance by Jack Colback.
Corner taken by Sebastian Larsson from the left by-line, clearance by Emboaba Oscar.
Foul by Ashley Cole on Connor Wickham, free kick awarded. Adam Johnson has a direct shot on goal from the free kick, save by Petr Cech. Corner taken left-footed by Adam Johnson. Stephane Sessegnon delivers the ball, Emboaba Oscar makes a clearance.
Centre by Stephane Sessegnon, Petr Cech makes a save.
Free kick taken by Jack Colback. Juan Mata gives away a free kick for an unfair challenge on James McClean. Free kick taken by Simon Mignolet.
Booking Booking for Branislav Ivanovic for unsporting behaviour.
The ball is delivered by Eden Hazard, blocked by Danny Rose. Unfair challenge on Danny Rose by Branislav Ivanovic results in a free kick.
Inswinging corner taken right-footed by Sebastian Larsson from the left by-line to the near post, clearance by Fernando Torres.
Free kick awarded for a foul by Craig Gardner on Ryan Bertrand. Petr Cech restarts play with the free kick. Connor Wickham takes a shot. Blocked by Gary Cahill.
Jack Colback crosses the ball, clearance by Ashley Cole.
Danny Rose concedes a free kick for a foul on Nascimento Ramires. Juan Mata restarts play with the free kick.
Substitution Phil Bardsley leaves the field to be replaced by Jack Colback.
Assist by James McClean.
65:28 Goal scored
Goal! - Adam Johnson - Sunderland 1 - 3 Chelsea Adam Johnson scores a goal from inside the penalty area to the top right corner of the goal. Sunderland 1-3 Chelsea.
Corner taken by Adam Johnson from the right by-line. Inswinging corner taken right-footed by Phil Bardsley from the left by-line, Petr Cech makes a save.
Direct free kick taken by Simon Mignolet.
Substitution (Chelsea) makes a substitution, with Ryan Bertrand coming on for Victor Moses.
Juan Mata concedes a free kick for a foul on Sebastian Larsson.
Emboaba Oscar has shot on goal from just outside the box which goes wide of the right-hand upright.
The ball is sent over by Branislav Ivanovic.
The ball is crossed by James McClean.
Centre by James McClean. The ball is sent over by James McClean, save by Petr Cech.
Effort from inside the area by Victor Moses misses to the left of the goal.
Branislav Ivanovic takes a shot. Danny Rose gets a block in.
Assist on the goal came from Fernando Torres.
48:04 Goal scored
Goal! - Juan Mata - Sunderland 0 - 3 Chelsea Juan Mata scores a goal from inside the penalty box to the bottom right corner of the goal. Sunderland 0-3 Chelsea.
The ball is crossed by Victor Moses. Fernando Torres takes a shot.
Centre by Juan Mata, save by Simon Mignolet.
The ball is delivered by Juan Mata. Emboaba Oscar challenges Craig Gardner unfairly and gives away a free kick. Free kick taken by Simon Mignolet.
The ball is swung over by Phil Bardsley, clearance made by Emboaba Oscar.
The referee gets the second half started.
45:00 +3:28 Half time
Half Time The players leave the pitch at half time.
Assist on the goal came from Nascimento Ramires.
45:00 +2:18 Goal scored
Goal! - Fernando Torres - Sunderland 0 - 2 Chelsea Penalty taken right-footed by Fernando Torres and scored. Sunderland 0-2 Chelsea.
Sebastian Larsson concedes a Penalty for a foul on Nascimento Ramires.
The ball is sent over by James McClean, clearance made by David Luiz. Sebastian Larsson takes the inswinging corner, Emboaba Oscar manages to make a clearance.
Fernando Torres challenges Danny Rose unfairly and gives away a free kick. Simon Mignolet takes the free kick.
Foul by Juan Mata on Danny Rose, free kick awarded. Simon Mignolet restarts play with the free kick.
Emboaba Oscar takes the direct free kick.
Booking Craig Gardner is cautioned by the ref for unsporting behaviour.
Free kick awarded for an unfair challenge on Emboaba Oscar by Craig Gardner.
The ball is crossed by Fernando Torres, clearance made by Sebastian Larsson. Effort from outside the penalty box by Craig Gardner goes wide right of the goal.
A cross is delivered by Ashley Cole, clearance by Carlos Cuellar.
The referee blows for offside against Fernando Torres. Indirect free kick taken by John O'Shea.
Phil Bardsley challenges Juan Mata unfairly and gives away a free kick. Free kick crossed by Juan Mata, clearance by Danny Rose. Emboaba Oscar produces a left-footed shot from the edge of the area and misses to the left of the target.
Nascimento Ramires takes a shot from long distance which goes wide right of the target.
Craig Gardner takes a shot. Gary Cahill gets a block in. Shot from just outside the area by Danny Rose goes over the bar.
The ball is delivered by Eden Hazard, clearance by Carlos Cuellar.
Adam Johnson produces a cross, Ashley Cole gets a block in. Inswinging corner taken by Adam Johnson from the right by-line, save by Petr Cech.
Free kick awarded for an unfair challenge on Craig Gardner by Nascimento Ramires. Free kick taken by John O'Shea.
Phil Bardsley takes a shot. Stephane Sessegnon takes a shot. Save made by Petr Cech. Corner taken left-footed by Adam Johnson, save by Petr Cech. Free kick awarded for a foul by Juan Mata on Danny Rose. Danny Rose takes the free kick. Corner taken by Adam Johnson from the right by-line to the near post, clearance by Nascimento Ramires.
The referee blows for offside. Free kick taken by Simon Mignolet.
Corner taken by Sebastian Larsson from the left by-line, Carlos Cuellar takes a shot. Blocked by Ashley Cole. Free kick awarded for an unfair challenge on Victor Moses by Sebastian Larsson. Victor Moses takes the free kick.
Substitution Emboaba Oscar joins the action as a substitute, replacing Oriol Romeu.
Sebastian Larsson concedes a free kick for a foul on Nascimento Ramires. David Luiz produces a shot on goal direct from the free kick.
Phil Bardsley gives away a free kick for an unfair challenge on Eden Hazard. Eden Hazard takes the free kick.
Nascimento Ramires fouled by Stephane Sessegnon, the ref awards a free kick. Branislav Ivanovic restarts play with the free kick.
The assist for the goal came from Eden Hazard.
10:50 Goal scored
Goal! - Fernando Torres - Sunderland 0 - 1 Chelsea Fernando Torres grabs a goal from close in to the top left corner of the goal. Sunderland 0-1 Chelsea.
The ball is sent over by Eden Hazard,
Stephane Sessegnon fouled by Oriol Romeu, the ref awards a free kick. Simon Mignolet takes the direct free kick.
Phil Bardsley gives away a free kick for an unfair challenge on Ashley Cole. Free kick taken by Juan Mata.
Fernando Torres takes a shot. Save made by Simon Mignolet. Foul by Connor Wickham on David Luiz, free kick awarded. Direct free kick taken by David Luiz.
Branislav Ivanovic produces a cross, John O'Shea makes a clearance.
Corner taken by Juan Mata from the left by-line played to the near post, Craig Gardner manages to make a clearance.
James McClean delivers the ball, clearance by Ashley Cole.
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