By his own admission, Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston was not ready to play on Sunday.
The pall that hung over the somber Chiefs in the aftermath of Saturday’s murder-suicide involving fellow linebacker Jovan Belcher was still too much for Houston to handle when he arrived at Arrowhead Stadium for the game against the Carolina Panthers.
“It was tough for me in the first half,” Houston said. “I was struggling hard … I wasn’t in the game at all. It was hard for me to think.
“But I had my other brothers in here to rely on. I was telling them on the sidelines, it’s hard for me to focus, and they told me, ‘Focus on the game, and we’ll talk about this after the game.’ It helped me clear my mind and got me to focus on football.”
Houston wasn’t alone.
Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson was still distraught about missing the player who has lined up next to him every game for the last three seasons.
“It really hit me (Sunday) morning, waking up not being able to talk to Jovan,” Johnson said. “Being the middle backer, the heart of this defense, that’s who I talk to all the time. … When I woke up, it just hits you. It was one those things were you think it’s a bad dream and you wake up and it’s still there.
“I was really emotional going to the stadium. I knew we had to pull together; he’s a strong minded guy, so I knew he would want us to pull together and get a win.
And that’s exactly what happened.
The Chiefs’ defense — despite losing Johnson and cornerback Brandon Flowers because of hamstring injuries in the second half, backup safety Abe Elam to a leg injury and already without starting free safety Kendrick Lewis — rode a flood of emotion in a 27-21 victory over Carolina.
A patchwork defense that included backup linebackers Cory Greenwood and Andy Studebaker, rookie cornerback Neiko Thorpe and rookie safety Tysyn Hartman and second-year corner Jalil Brown held the Panthers to one second-half touchdown.
Carolina, trailing 24-21, threatened to tie the game or score the go-ahead touchdown with 9 minutes left when the Panthers reached their 40-yard line. With the kiddie corps in the secondary, Houston took advantage of outstanding coverage and sacked Carolina quarterback Cam Newton for a 9-yard loss on first down.
On second down, Houston read an option play and stopped running back DeAngelo Williams for a 1-yard loss, bringing up third and 20. Then, Tyson Jackson batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage, forcing a punt.
“I credit that sack to the coverage,” said Houston, who now has 10 sacks this season. “The coverage was great, he had nowhere to go, so it allowed me to make a play.”
As Houston spoke, he stood a few stalls from Belcher’s locker, where a red No. 59 jersey was on a hanger. While Belcher committed a heinous act, the players felt compassion for him and Belcher’s girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, his shooting victim.
“It was hard,” Studebaker said. “We lost a brother. There were families who lost a son … a father … a daughter. … When you have a locker-room atmosphere that is a family, you can get through tough times. Less than a day after tragedy, it’s tough to come in here and completely forget about it. You don’t want to forget about it. … Jovan was a brother to us. His family was our family.”
The inspired Chiefs defense faced two late challenges by the Panthers but forced a three-and-out before Carolina reached the Chiefs 8 on a last-second, last-gasp pass from Newton to Steve Smith.
“We haven’t been in that situation very often, up late in the game,” Hartman said, “and we had to fight and claw and scratch to keep them from getting in the end zone. It was fun to be out there during that time. We all knew we could lean on each other and somebody’s going to make a play.”
Hartman, who has been active for just one of the last six games, suited up because Lewis was out because of a shoulder injury and led the Chiefs with six tackles.
“We’ve got guys who even when they’re not always playing, they’re always ready,” Studebaker said, “working their tails off in practice throughout the week, lifting hard, running hard, being physically ready, mentally ready, and when stuff happens like that, when opportunity comes up and the team needs you, you’ve got to be ready.”