INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Here they are again, a pair of football phenoms from the Gwen Cherry Park Bulls youth program, jockeying for position atop the NFL receiving charts and about to share another reunion.
That would be the Indianapolis Colts’ T.Y. Hilton and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antonio Brown.
Their roots stretch back to Miami, Fla., where it became evident at an early age they were something special. Brown was 2 years older and about 20 pounds heavier, so he and Hilton competed in different youth divisions.
“This is a guy I grew up with, so we have a history,’’ Hilton said Monday afternoon. “At the end of the day he’s one of those guys I like competing against.’’
They stay in touch, intent on following the arc and highlights of the other’s career.
Until game week, when communication is somewhat muted.
“We might text here and again,’’ Hilton said, “but we’ll talk before the game.’’
Their latest meeting – the fourth in as many seasons – is Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, and reunites two of the NFL’s bona fide playmakers.
Brown leads the league with 57 receptions and 835 yards. Hilton’s catch total has lagged in the absence of Andrew Luck – 34, tied for 36th – but his 702 yards trail only Brown, who has played one less game. Hilton’s 20.6 average is a league-best and was fattened by 45- and 80-yard touchdowns in Sunday’s 20-14 win at Houston.
Brown led the NFL is receiving yards in 2014. Hilton topped the list last season. They, along with Denver’s Demaryius Thomas, are the only players to crack 1,000 yards in each of the last four seasons.
Brown remains one of the Steelers’ difference-makers, but has plenty of help with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and rookie wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster.
With Luck out, the Colts only go as far as Hilton takes them. In their three wins, he’s averaged 6.3 catches for 168.3 yards with 3 TDs. In the six losses, the averaged plummet to 2.5 catches and 32.8 yards.
“That’s what they need me to do,’’ Hilton said of his latest monster game at the expense of the Texans. “I’m a big-play guy. They need me to just go out there and make plays and normally when I make those plays, we win.’’
Normally. Hilton ranks third in team history with 27 100-yard games during the regular season, and the Colts are 18-9 when he reaches triple digits.
The Colts entered the Houston game on a three-game skid, which coincided with the quietest three-game streak in Hilton’s six-year career: 5 receptions and 61 yards on 19 targets.
Veteran running back Frank Gore never doubted Hilton’s game-swinging skills.
“He just didn’t have the opportunities the last couple of weeks,’’ he said. “He’s liable to make plays anytime he wants.’’
Hilton did a lot with a little against the Texans. His five receptions came on nine targets and included the 80- and 45-yard TDs and a 30-yarder.
“You’re never surprised by what the guy brings to the table,’’ said cornerback Rashaan Melvin, who sees Hilton every day in practice. “He’s going to go out there and complete at a high level, make plays.
“He’s a dominant player for our team and around the team.’’
That goes for Brown as well, and Hilton realizes it’s imperative to follow up his big game against Houston with another against the Steelers.
“For us to win,’’ he said, “I’m probably going to have to outdo him.
“I look forward to it.’’
Thus far, Brown has earned bragging rights.
In four appearances against the Colts – all wins with the last three by 21, 35 and 27 points – he’s dominated their secondary with 27 catches, 417 yards and seven TDs on 38 targets. The seven TDs have come in the last three meetings.
Hilton had six catches, 155 yards and one touchdown in 2014, a 51-34 Steelers win in Pittsburgh, but has been limited to a total of six catches and 90 yards the last two meetings.