ROMEO CRENNEL stood in the middle of the Chiefs' locker room Sunday, the emotion threatening to overcome the good-natured coach.
Chiefs owner Clark Hunt was at his side, offering support. Members of the team hugged each other, the mud smearing with tears on their cheeks. And over along the wall stood the empty locker that once belonged to Jovan Belcher, his jersey still hanging from a hook.
Just 1 day after the linebacker killed his girlfriend and then turned the gun on himself, the Chiefs banded together to play their finest game of the season, an inspired, 27-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers that ended an eight-game losing streak suddenly rendered trivial.
"As far as playing the game, I thought that was the best for us to do, because that's what we do," Crennel said, tears forming in the corners of his eyes. "We're football players and football coaches and that's what we do, we play on Sunday."
Authorities said Belcher shot his girlfriend multiple times early Saturday at a residence near Arrowhead Stadium, then sped to the team's practice facility and turned the gun on himself as Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli watched in the parking lot.
Pioli walked through the press box before the game and said he was doing "OK."
"It's been an incredibly difficult 24 hours for our family and our entire organization," Hunt said. "We have so many guys on our team and our coaching staff who are really, really hurting."
Chiefs players gathered for a brief prayer before their pregame stretching. And there was a moment of silence to remember all victims of domestic violence.
Kansas City police have not released a motive for the shootings, which claimed the life of Belcher and 22-year-old Kasandra M. Perkins, and left a 3-month-old girl, Zoey, an orphan.
"I'm just trying to get through the rest of today," said the Chiefs' Brady Quinn, who threw his first two touchdown passes in 3 years. "The emotions of what has taken place will probably hit home for a few guys the next few days, when they realize what's taken place."
Cam Newton threw for 232 yards and three TDs for the Panthers (3-9), who were informed the game would be played as scheduled while they were heading to Kansas City on Saturday.
"You definitely feel for them. What they are going through is tragic," Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. "But we have a job to do. Our job is to come here and prepare to win. They wouldn't expect any less."
For the Chiefs (2-12), Ryan Succop hit a pair of field goals, including a 52-yarder with 4:54 left that forced the Panthers to try for a TD to steal the win. Instead, they went three-and-out, and the Chiefs were able to run the clock down to 31 seconds before giving back the ball. Newton's final heave as time expired was caught by Smith short of the end zone.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera greeted Crennel at midfield and gave him a hug.
"They played an inspired football game," Rivera said. "They did some really good things, and we have to give them credit, because they suffered through a very difficult time."
The emotions were raw even after the kickoff. Peyton Hillis powered in to score the first TD for Kansas City on the opening possession of a game since Dec. 26, 2010. Hillis ran to the sideline after scoring the touchdown and handed the ball to Crennel, then gave the guy who managed to hold the team together a hug.