TAMPA — On Sunday afternoon, for perhaps the first time in their 24 years, it will be easy to tell Brandon and Brian Dixon apart.
The brothers are identical twins and rookie cornerbacks, with the Bucs and Saints, respectively, and will be opponents for the first time. They've always been teammates, through Pop Warner, high school in Coconut Creek, two junior colleges, then two years at Northwest Missouri State, where they won a Division II national championship with a 15-0 record last season.
"It's going to feel crazy, but I'm going to embrace the moment," said Brandon, older by seven minutes. "I talked to him yesterday, and he's talking about how they're going to blow us out. I'm going to line up on him, he's going to line up on me. It's going to be real fun. We compete a lot, and it brings out the best in us."
Identical? They're both 6 feet, 195 pounds, with long dreadlocks that cover up the name on the back of their jerseys. As juniors in college, they each intercepted five passes, with one touchdown. As seniors, when few teams would throw against them, they each intercepted one pass. They wore Nos. 1 and 2 at NMSU, as close as jersey numbers can be.
"When you watch them run, even watch them backpedal, it's eerie how similar they are," said Adam Dorrel, their head coach at NMSU and himself the father of 3-year-old twins. "It's bizarre. I've been around twins before, but never like that. They finish each other's sentences."
Dorrel said the secret to telling the Dixon twins apart is to make them smile — Brandon, he explains, has a gap between his top front teeth, though he's also the quicker to smile in the first place.
"He's more serious. I'm more goofy," said Brandon, who wears No. 39 for the Bucs, while Brian wears No. 20 with the Saints.
Brian, talking by phone Tuesday afternoon from Louisiana, clarifies: "I'm more of a beast than my brother is."
They've talked a lot by phone in the last five months, with texts and FaceTime conversations filling in where constant company had always been. Transitioning from a small college to the NFL is one challenge, but going through each day without your best friend is another.
"At first it was hard," Brandon said. "We've played together our whole lives. I knew it was going to happen, and you have to adjust to it. I'm going along with it cool. I miss him, and he says he misses me."
The brothers were first separated this spring, when Brandon was picked by the Jets in the sixth round, while Brian, undrafted, signed with the Saints. That would have been twins playing for twins, in Jets coach Rex Ryan and his brother, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, but Brandon was among the Jets' final cuts, and he signed with the Bucs.
Both play primarily on special teams on coverage duty — on kicks, they're "gunners," tasked with speeding downfield to get first shot at a returner, and in kick coverage, they're "jammers," challenged to slow opposing gunners. Both have seen spot duty as cornerbacks — 12 snaps for Brandon, 16 for Brian — but their jobs for now are on special teams, and on Sunday, trying to offset each other.
"We compete in everything we do. We always wanted to get the most interceptions, the most tackles, the most fumble recoveries, the most touchdowns," said Brian, who impressed Saints coaches enough they kept him while cutting future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey. "That carried through high school, college and even now."
Sunday will be the first time their family has been able to watch them play in the NFL in person — their parents, Deborah and Ronnie Dixon, will be there, along with siblings and other relatives. Some will wear Saints gear, some Bucs gear, and the parents will have special T-shirts, made so they can support both sons equally.
The NFL has two other sets of twins — Devin and Jason McCourty, and Mike and Maurkice Pouncey, Each pair has played against each other just once in their NFL careers, with the McCourtys at a Titans-Patriots game in 2012 and the Pounceys at a Dolphins-Steelers game in 2013.
Watching the likes of Tiki and Ronde Barber as kids, the two Dixons also shared a dream growing up: not just playing in the NFL, but playing together in the NFL, a dream they'll realize Sunday.
"When we were kids playing (youth) league, we'd watch the Dolphins game at 1 o'clock and say, 'Man, we want to be there,' " Brandon said. "It's reality now. You're not dreaming anymore."