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MASTER KEY: Bengals passing offense vs. Ravens secondary

The Ravens secondary views Cincinnati's passing game as their greatest threat and for them to be successful, they'll need full containment.

Patrick Smith

The Baltimore Ravens passing defense has allowed three quarterbacks to surprise 300 yards passing this season, starting with Peyton Manning's explosive regular season opener when he completed 27 passes for 462 yards passing and seven touchdowns. SEVEN! However, since allowing 315 yards to Aaron Rodgers in mid-October, the Ravens have gone nine straight without allowing a 300-yard passer and have only allowed seven touchdown passes in the previous six games against Tom Brady, Matt Stafford, Ben Roethlisberger and He Who Can't Be Contained Matt Cassel.

Admittedly, they're playing well, despite their No. 11 ranking against the pass.

But so is Cincinnati's passing offense.

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has thrown multiple touchdown passes in five of the last six games and over the previous three, has recorded nine scores without throwing a pick. In his most recent outing against the Minnesota Vikings, Dalton completed over 70 percent of his passes while throwing four touchdowns for 366 yards and a career-high 136.5 passer rating.

It's not surprising that one major element in Sunday's game will be the Bengals passing offense against the Ravens defense.

"Our challenge is for guys in the secondary to make plays. Period," safety James Ihedigbo said via the Carroll County Times. "They have great guys, but so do we. … But If we want to win this game, we’ve got to make some big plays in the secondary. That’s our mindset going into the game."

While A.J. Green and Dalton are looking to rewrite franchise records this Sunday, the Bengals have a greater supporting cast than what they've had in recent years. There's a chance, if Jermaine Gresham plays (questionable with a hamstring), that the Bengals could have five players with 50 receptions or more this season. Green leads Cincinnati with 94 grabs and Giovani Bernard is second with 51. Gresham, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu are all tied for third-most with 46 each. Talk about balance.

If Jones scores a touchdown on Sunday, he'll reach double-digit touchdowns, joining A.J. Green and becoming the first tandem in franchise history to achieve that feat. The closest Cincinnati has come to having two receivers with double-digit touchdowns was '06 and '07. In 2007, T.J. Houhmandzadeh led the team with 12 and Chad Johnson fell two short with eight. In '06, Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry had nine each.

And if Giovani Bernard scores a touchdown, the Bengals will have three players with nine or more total touchdowns for the fourth time in franchise history -- the last time being '06 with Rudi Johnson (12), Chris Henry (9) and Houshmandzadeh (9).

Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees believes he sees Cincinnati's weakness (signed Dr. Seuss).

"If you look back at the games that they've won and the games that they've lost, the teams that have beaten [the Bengals] haven’t given up big plays," Pees said, later adding, "I’m talking about plays [that are] 30, 40, 50 yards. You can’t do that against this team. They score that quick on you.

"That’s why they've scored 40 points at home the last four games. So the key for us is to play good, sound football, tackle well … and don’t give up big plays. That’s our key."

Not to be confrontational, but that seems like the master key for every defense in most games.

Matt Zenitz with the CCT writes:

Ravens cornerbacks Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb and Corey Graham have limited wide receivers like Calvin Johnson and Antonio Brown during the last month or so, and they helped hold New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to just 172 yards last week, but this will be another test for them.

The last time Cincinnati played Baltimore earlier this year, the story was related to turnovers. Dalton threw three interceptions, one of which lead to a touchdown. A turnover on downs early in the first quarter lead to a Ravens touchdown, with a pass interference assist from Reggie Nelson. There was a missed field goal early in the second quarter. Baltimore returned the favor with two fourth quarter turnovers and the game was eventually decided in overtime.

If the Ravens beat Cincinnati to complete the season sweep, they'll need a loss by the Miami Dolphins or San Diego Chargers to qualify for the final postseason berth. The Ravens can still make the playoffs with a loss, but they need Miami, San Diego and Pittsburgh to lose because they hold the four-way tiebreaker.

Cincinnati will secure the No. 3 seed with a win, and if the New England Patriots lose to Buffalo later Sunday afternoon, the Bengals will earn a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed.