CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Stats, charts and graphs can provide all the necessary data to detail the accomplishments of Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Carolina counterpart Steve Smith.
But it's a lot more fun to catch their act live.
Fitzgerald led the NFL with 96 catches, was second with 1,431 yards and caught 12 touchdown passes. Smith, who was suspended for the first two games for punching teammate Ken Lucas in a training camp fight, caught a team-high 78 passes, was third in the NFL with 1,421 yards and had six touchdowns. Both were selected for the Pro Bowl.
And when the Cardinals and Panthers meet tonight in an NFC divisional playoff game, they'll be more than passing fancies.
Each has his own style, his own way. Smith, at 5 feet 9 and 185 pounds, often is the smallest player on the field and plays with a large chip on his shoulder. Fitzgerald, a tremendous athlete at 6-3 and 220 pounds, plays sometimes in his own world.
Both can change a game or a defensive scheme. Both can make circuslike catches to fill their highlight reels. Both can leave other teams searching for ways to stop them — or at least explain what happened.
Bucs coach Jon Gruden might have come up with the most colorful description of Smith's style before last month's Monday Night Football showdown.
"That guy Steve Smith, he's a nightmare, man," Gruden said. "He's like Freddy Krueger to me. He scares the hell out of me. … Every film I pick up, he's brilliant. He makes some of the darnedest catches. I don't like to see Steve."
Fitzgerald can have the same effect, especially when Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner lobs a ball up for him to outjump the defensive backs.
"The big difference is that Larry is just a little bit taller, but I don't think that really makes a difference," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "I think that both of those players possess the unique ability to judge a football with a sense of timing to go up and catch it at its highest point."
Both are the lead receivers, though Fitzgerald has more help with Anquan Boldin (who may not play tonight because of a hamstring strain) and Steve Breaston; Smith has only Muhsin Muhammad.
They share some other traits, too.
In one newspaper column, the Charlotte Observer's Scott Fowler said Smith is "a noted trash talker," "can be an absolute jerk, has "a fierce temper" and is "a complicated, emotional man." But it also said that in a 10-minute conversation, Smith can be "moody, insightful, childlike, deep and mischievous," and that he might do more hands-on charity work with kids than any other Panther. "In a league full of clones," Fowler wrote, "he's an original."
Fitzgerald apparently is, too, from exotic vacations he takes by himself to the way he'll start undressing on the field to make a quick getaway from the locker room postgame scene. But he'll show up in the middle of a Super Bowl week frenzy.
Surmised Arizona Republic columnist Dan Bickley: "This kid is way different, and whatever makes him tick also is making him a beast on the football field."
Tonight, both will get a chance to show what they can do.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org