KANSAS CITY, Mo. – At some point, they had to return to football. They had to think about football.
The Chiefs knew that. This is their job, their passion, their obligation.
The nightmarish events of the previous 24 hours — when teammate Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend, then took his own life — had to be stored away, and the focus had to return.
Football is simply a game, but it’s also a brutally physical one that demands concentration, and it does not forgive the inattentive.
So the Chiefs returned to work on Sunday, whether they thought it was the right thing to do or not, and played football — quite well, actually.
The team known for its careless play throughout the season instead played sharp and sound football, committing no turnovers and just one penalty, which didn’t come until three minutes remained on a harmless delay of game penalty.
The result was a determined 27-21 win over the Carolina Panthers that looked an awful lot like the type of game and victory the Chiefs expected before the season began when they were picked by many experts to win the AFC West.
The Chiefs ran the ball hard (158 yards), passed with pin-point efficiency (19 of 23, 197 yards), and played stout defense when they needed to against the athletic and gifted Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who came up scoreless on his final three possessions.
The Chiefs did so, however, with heavy hearts. They were careful not to eulogize Belcher for his heinous act, but rather remember their former teammate as one of their family.
“You just never know what goes on inside people’s minds,” receiver Dexter McCluster said. “We can assume you know but we really don’t. All we know is he’s gone and there are two families hurting.”
The Chiefs chose to remember Belcher by hanging his No. 59 game jersey in his locker stall, with his pads and cleats underneath.
Some also wore T-shirts with a picture of a smiling Belcher. “Rest in Peace Javon Belcher” read the words across the top of the shirt. At the bottom read, “Love leaves a memory no one can steal.”
“That’s just something Dwayne Bowe came up with and got ready last night,” McCluster said. “Just want people to know we won’t forget him.”
Several players, though, admitted it was difficult at times to concentrate. Head coach Romeo Crennel was seen throughout the game with his arms around players, offering words of encouragement.
“Romeo is like a father figure to a lot of us,” defensive tackle Shaun Smith said. “He really kept our heads in the game.”
Defensive back Brandon Flowers said it was much easier to focus when they were on the field playing. On the sideline was another matter.
“When you’re in the game, you’re thinking about coverages and tackling people,” Flowers said. “Your mind doesn’t wander. You get on the sideline and you start thinking. It’s tough.
“But that’s what we had each other for. There were a lot of times we kind of came up to each other and reminded everyone to stay in the game, stay focused. I thought we did a good job of that.”
For the most part, the players were proud of what they accomplished Sunday, gaining just their second win of the season.
“It was hard, but we have to build off this,” Smith said. “This is something we have to continue the season with. It was a sad, tragic event that happened, but this is something that brought the team together. We played a complete game for the first time this year.”
The Chiefs actually played an exciting brand of football, all things considered.
Crennel, criticized all season for his conservative approach, coached with abandon, going for it three times on fourth down — and the Chiefs converted all three, including a gutsy fourth-and-1 touchdown pass from Brady Quinn to Tony Moeaki on the final play of the first half.
Still, some may have questioned the wisdom of even playing the game, or the value of Sunday’s win in light of the weekend’s tragedy.
McCluster, though, disagreed with those notions.
“It’s a game we love,” McCluster said. “It’s the game Jovan loved.”
Asked if they played this game for Belcher, defensive tackle Tyson Jackson shook his head and said, “We played the game for each other.”
Jackson paused, then added, “But at the end of the day, this is just football. What the families are going through is something much worse. We get to play games. They have to go through this forever.”