INDIANAPOLIS — Xavier Rhodes and Odell Beckham Jr. have a bit of history.
Four years ago, when Rhodes was with the Minnesota Vikings and Beckham was a soaring star with the New York Giants, the veteran cornerback played a lead role in one of the worst days of OBJ’s career. Rhodes continually goaded the explosive wide receiver, challenging him verbally and physically from the opening snap.
The result was one of Beckham’s worst games in New York. He finished with just three catches for 23 yards, drew one unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in retaliation and suffered a miscommunication with former quarterback Eli Manning that led to an easy interception for Rhodes.
In the NFL, four years counts as a lifetime. Both men are in different places, literally and figuratively.
But they figure to again play major roles when the Indianapolis Colts (3-1) visit the Cleveland Browns (3-1) in Sunday’s showcase showdown.
Rhodes broke into laughter when asked about his previous engagement with Beckham this week.
“I knew that question was coming sooner or later,” he said.
After being cut by the Vikings in March, Rhodes reunited with defensive backs coach Jonathan Gannon in Indianapolis. And, through the first four games, the 30-year-old has been rediscovering his Pro Bowl form.
Quarterbacks have completed just 9 of 18 targets in Rhodes’ direction, and they have a rating of 52.1 when challenging him. The physical cornerback is tied for the team lead with five passes defensed and two interceptions, one of which he returned 44 yards for a touchdown.
After a slow start this season, Beckham appears to be in vintage form as well. He caught five passes for 81 yards and two touchdowns and carried the ball twice for 73 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown run, during the Browns’ 49-38 victory against the Dallas Cowboys last week. On the year, OBJ leads Cleveland with 236 receiving yards and three scoring receptions.
His matchup with Rhodes promises to be a juicy subplot during a game both teams hope to use as validation for their respective hot starts.
But Rhodes doesn’t expect any carryover from his previous battle with Beckham. No matter how memorable it was.
“That was in the past, man,” he said. “This is a new year, and more than likely we’re probably just gonna go out there and play ball. We’re older guys, and we just wanna go out there and try to get the win.”
Both teams come in riding three-game winning streaks after both suffered disappointing losses in Week 1.
The similarities don’t end there. The Browns’ opponents during their win streak have a combined record of 3-8-1. Indianapolis’ opponents over the same span are 4-8.
Cleveland gained a measure of respect by going on the road and rushing for 307 yards against the Cowboys last week. The Colts won an old-fashioned brawl with the previously undefeated Chicago Bears last week and held the home team to just 28 rushing yards.
Football geeks will be entertained by the glitzy Rhodes-Beckham matchup, but they’re really looking forward to a battle between two of the NFL’s most improved units — the Browns’ earth-moving offensive line against Indianapolis’ dominant defensive front.
Cleveland ranks No. 1 in the league with 5.9 yards per carry but will play without leading rusher Nick Chubb. The Colts rank sixth with an average of 3.6 yards surrendered per rushing attempt but have questions in the front seven after four linebackers appeared on the injury report this week.
It’s strength against strength with potential implications for January. The winner would have a tie-breaker in the AFC wild-card race, if needed.
“I have a lot of respect for (first-year head) Coach (Kevin) Stefanski,” Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich said. “He does a really good job. They’ve got some game-wreckers on defense, (and) obviously the best running game in the NFL. It will be a big challenge for us going on the road. Our preparation is key.”
Browns defensive end Myles Garrett already has five sacks this season, two tackles for loss and six quarterback hits.
Cleveland’s game plan is simple: Control the game clock with the running game, get plays in the passing game with Beckham and quarterback Baker Mayfield when needed and send Garrett after opposing quarterbacks who feel pressured to make the most of their limited possessions.
The Browns defense is opportunistic, forcing turnovers on an NFL-high 22.7% of opponents’ possessions.
It all adds up to the toughest challenge Indianapolis has faced this year.
One the Colts relish.
“Our defense has been unbelievable,” Indianapolis quarterback Philip Rivers said. “We’ve done enough offensively to win. We found a way collectively to win the game three out of the first four (weeks). That’s the objective each week, however it shakes out.”