By DAVE SKRETTA
AP Sports Writer
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Romeo Crennel stood in the middle of the Kansas City 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 one 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.”
According to authorities, Belcher shot his girlfriend multiple times early Saturday at a residence near Arrowhead Stadium, then sped to the team’s practice facility and turn 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 in the tunnel leading to the field for a brief prayer before their pregame stretching. A few fans in the half-empty stadium held up signs referencing the shootings, 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 three 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 touchdowns for the Panthers (3-9), who were informed the game would be played as scheduled while they were heading to Kansas City on Saturday.
DeAngelo Williams added 67 yards rushing, carrying the load with Jonathan Stewart out with an injury. Steve Smith, Greg Olsen and Louis Murphy caught Carolina’s TD passes.
“You definitely feel for them. What they are going through is tragic,” 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.”
Peyton Hillis had a touchdown run for Kansas City (2-10), while Tony Moeaki and Jon Baldwin had touchdown catches. Ryan Succop hit a pair of field goals, including a 52-yarder with 4:54 left that forced the Panthers try for a touchdown 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 completed two quick passes to reach the Carolina 38, but his 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.
Kansas City took the opening possession and marched 74 yards in just six plays, including a 21-yard pass to Dwayne Bowe and a 34-yarder to Baldwin that got the Chiefs to the Carolina 2.
Hillis powered in to score the first touchdown for Kansas City on the opening possession of a game since Dec. 26, 2010. It was also the first touchdown drive engineered by Quinn since December 2009, when he helped the Browns beat the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
Hillis ran to the sideline after scoring his first touchdown of the season and handed the ball to Crennel, then gave the guy who managed to hold the team together a hug.
The Panthers answered with a long touchdown drive of their own. The big play came when safety Abe Elam watched Olsen haul in a 47-yard pass from Newton for the tying touchdown.
The Chiefs had tacked on a field goal when the Panthers struck again, this time after Newton completed three passes to convert third downs, the last finding Smith in the end zone.
But Kansas City finished off the half with one of its best drives of the year, an 80-yard march that took up the final 7:25. Hillis was stuffed at the line on third-and-goal, and Crennel allowed the clock to hit 2 seconds before calling timeout. On the final play of the half, Quinn saw Moeaki open in the back of the end zone and delivered a soft toss for a 17-14 lead.
Breathing room came late in the third quarter when the Chiefs used 17 plays to go 87 yards on a drive that lasted another 10 minutes. Quinn finished it with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Baldwin.
Carolina mounted a comeback with the opening drive of the fourth quarter, with Newton hitting Murphy on a quick slant route from the 8 to get the Panthers within a field goal. But the Chiefs added their own field goal, and then burned enough of the clock to ensure the victory.
One that allowed the Chiefs to celebrate in the midst of their mourning.
“There were pockets in the game where reality hits you again, and that’s sobering,” said Chiefs linebacker Andy Studebaker. “I’ve been telling people, Jovan was like a brother to us. His family was family to us. Our hearts go out to them, man, and the game maybe took our heads off it for a while. It brought us closer as a team today, I think. But it’s never going to be easy.”
PATRIOTS 23, DOLPHINS 16
MIAMI — Tom Brady had his least efficient game of the year and even threw an interception, but New England took advantage of Miami’s mistakes and clinched their fourth consecutive AFC East title.
A botched punt, roughing-the-punter penalty and fumble by Miami led to 17 New England points, and another penalty negated a Dolphins touchdown.
Brady finished 24 for 40 for 238 yards and was sacked four times. But with the Patriots nursing a 20-13 lead midway through the fourth quarter, he led a 16-play drive that took more than seven minutes and led to a field goal.
The Patriots (9-3) have won six games in a row and are assured of their 12th consecutive winning season. Miami (5-7) lost to New England for the fifth consecutive time.
TEXANS 24, TITANS 10
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Houston Texans clinched their second straight playoff berth and set a franchise record for wins in a season.
Rookie linebacker Whitney Mercilus recovered a fumble and had two sacks, and the Texans (11-1) remain tied with Atlanta for the best record in the NFL with their sixth straight win. After needing overtime the past two games, the Texans forced six turnovers and had six sacks of Jake Locker when they weren’t batting down a handful of other passes.
The Texans swept Tennessee (4-8), the team they replaced in Houston, for only the second time. Matt Schaub threw for 207 yards and two touchdowns, and Arian Foster ran for a TD.
BRONCOS 31, BUCCANEERS 23
DENVER — Peyton Manning threw three touchdowns, including one to defensive tackle Mitch Unrein, to help Denver wrap up the AFC West.
The Broncos (9-3) won their seventh straight and the Tampa Bay (6-6) loss clinched the NFC South for Atlanta, which won on Thursday.
Manning threw for 242 yards. He now has 29 touchdown passes on the season, moving past Jake Plummer and John Elway for the most by a Denver quarterback in a single year.
Manning threw two of the scores to Demaryius Thomas, who finished with eight catches for 99 yards.
Broncos linebacker Von Miller returned an interception for his first NFL score.
The Broncos held Tampa running back Doug Martin to 56 yards on 18 carries.
RAMS 16, 49ERS 13, OT
ST. LOUIS — Rookie Greg Zuerlein kicked a 54-yard field goal with 26 seconds left in overtime after booting a 53-yarder as time expired in regulation.
The winning kick allowed the Rams to avoid a second tie in three weeks against the NFC West leaders.
The Rams (5-6-1) scored twice in the final 3:04 of regulation, getting their lone touchdown when rookie Janoris Jenkins returned an errant pitchout by Colin Kaepernick 2 yards for a score. They’ve won two straight after an 0-4-1 skid.
The 49ers (8-3-1) failed to take advantage of a 14-yard punt by rookie punter Johnny Hekker to midfield when David Akers was barely wide right on a 51-yard attempt with 4:11 to go in overtime. Akers is just 7 for 15 from 40 yards and beyond.
SEAHAWKS 23, BEARS 17, OT
CHICAGO — Russell Wilson connected with Sidney Rice on a 13-yard touchdown with 7:33 left in overtime to lift Seattle.
Unbeaten in five home games, the Seahawks finally figured a way to win on the road after dropping five of their first six, and knocked off the NFC North leaders in the process.
Seattle took a short-lived lead late in regulation on Wilson’s 14-yard pass to Golden Tate, only to watch the Bears’ Robbie Gould boot a 46-yard field goal as time expired to send it into OT.
The Seahawks (7-5) got their only other road win at Carolina.
COLTS 35, LIONS 33
DETROIT — Andrew Luck threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Donnie Avery with no time left to lift Indianapolis.
With the final seconds ticking away, the rookie quarterback moved up in the pocket, flipped a short pass to Avery, and the receiver ran untouched into the end zone to complete a rally that started with Lions up 12 points midway through the fourth quarter.
The Colts (8-4) stayed in control of the AFC wild-card race with the win. Detroit (4-8) lost for the fourth straight time, including three in a row at home after leading in the final quarter.
PACKERS 23, VIKINGS 14
GREEN BAY, Wis. — James Starks had Green Bay’s first rushing touchdown in almost two months, Morgan Burnett picked off Christian Ponder twice and the Packers overcame a monster day by Adrian Peterson.
Peterson finished with 210 yards, the most he’s had since blowing out his ACL and MCL last December. But the Vikings (6-6) clearly felt the absence of Percy Harvin, who missed his third straight game with a sprained ankle.
Ponder didn’t help matters with his interceptions, one in the end zone and the other around the Green Bay 10. The Packers turned both miscues into field goals, giving them their 10th straight victory against an NFC North opponent.
The win also keeps the Packers’ hopes for the (8-4) division title alive.
STEELERS 23, RAVENS 20
BALTIMORE — Shaun Suisham kicked a 42-yard field goal as time expired.
Playing without injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for a third straight week, the Steelers turned to the 37-year-old Batch for the second game in a row. He went 25 for 36 for 276 yards, threw a touchdown and moved the Steelers 61 yards before Suisham’s game-winning kick.
Pittsburgh trailed 13-3 in the first half and 20-13 in the fourth quarter before coming back.
Pittsburgh (7-5) snapped a two-game losing streak and kept alive its slim hopes of overtaking Baltimore (9-3) in the AFC North. The teams have split their games this season.
The Ravens could have clinched a playoff berth with a victory. Instead, Baltimore had its 15-game home winning streak snapped and also lost for the first time in 13 games against division foes.
BENGALS 20, CHARGERS 13
SAN DIEGO — Andy Dalton scrambled up the middle for a 6-yard touchdown with 4:11 left for the go-ahead score and Cincinnati won its fourth straight game.
On second-and-goal, Dalton pump-faked right and then ran up the middle, dived for the end zone and got the ball across.
The Bengals (7-5) remained tied with Pittsburgh in the race for the AFC’s second wild-card berth.
The Chargers (4-8) lost their fourth straight game and for the seventh time in eight games, and remain only mathematically alive in the wild-card chase. Denver won the AFC West with a 31-23 victory against Tampa Bay.
BROWNS 20, RAIDERS 17
OAKLAND, Calif. — Brandon Weeden threw for a career-high 364 yards and a touchdown as Cleveland snapped a 12-game road losing streak.
Weeden hit fellow rookie Josh Gordon on a 44-yard score in the second quarter and Trent Richardson scored on a 3-yard run after Sheldon Brown made a key interception deep in Cleveland territory when the Raiders (3-9) were driving for the potential tying or go-ahead score in the fourth quarter.
It all added up to the first road win for the Browns (4-8) since beating Indianapolis 27-19 on Sept. 18, 2011.
JETS 7, CARDINALS 6
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Third-stringer Greg McElroy stepped in for a struggling Mark Sanchez and led New York to its only score.
With Tim Tebow inactive as he heals from two broken ribs, coach Rex Ryan pulled Sanchez for McElroy — as the crowd at MetLife Stadium cheered wildly — late in the third quarter. McElroy led the (5-7) Jets to their only points of the day with an impressive drive, connecting with Jeff Cumberland on a 1-yard touchdown. That ended up being the winning score.
Fans chanted “Mc-El-roy!” throughout the first three quarters as Sanchez went 10 for 21 for 97 yards and three interceptions.
The sagging Cardinals (4-8) have their own troubles at quarterback. Ryan Lindley was ineffective in his second NFL start as Arizona lost its eighth straight game after a 4-0 start.
BILLS 34, JAGUARS 18
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Ryan Fitzpatrick directed five straight scoring drives in helping Buffalo keep alive its slim playoff hopes.
Fitzpatrick threw two touchdown passes and scored on a 1-yard plunge in providing a spark to an injury-depleted offense that finished the game minus its top two receivers.
Fred Jackson had 101 yards rushing and C.J. Spiller scored on a 44-yard run that put Buffalo (5-7) up 34-10 early in the fourth quarter.
The Jaguars fell to 2-10.