KANSAS CITY, Mo. _ To get to the visitors' locker room at Arrowhead Stadium, you have to wind through a hallway plastered with photos of Chiefs champions then and now, and for the second time in 11 months that's where the Bengals saw their championship hopes end.
But even as they mulled Sunday night's 25-17 loss to the Chiefs that eliminated them from the playoffs while 2023 turned to 2024, Bengals' champions were plotting how to get back to the AFC title game they lost here on Jan. 29 in the last few seconds.
Joe Burrow, the franchise quarterback who has led them to a Super Bowl and back-to-back AFC North titles, continued to do what he's done for the last six weeks. His throwing wrist immobile, he sat on a chair comforting Jake Browning, his backup who kept them in the playoff hunt longer than anybody thought.
Captain Sam Hubbard, who had played 40 of the 54 snaps at left end, admitted he needs offseason surgery. But the only thing he was specific about was next year.
"This locker room is special. I love these guys. The way they handled themselves and carried themselves through the adversity of the year," Hubbard said. "I feel great (about the future).
"We've got a lot of great players that are going to take the adversity of this year and turn it into a positive. Work extra hard, come back hungry next year to do what we need to do. That's what I'm going to do."
Captain Ted Karras ("When you give up six field goals and lose, that's on the offense") didn't want to talk much beyond next Sunday's regular-season finale against the Browns, now set for 1 p.m. at Paycor Stadium. But he's been in Super Bowl locker rooms and knows the feel.
"We've got a lot of guys in here with a lot of heart and who care," Karras said. "Losing in the NFL is a lonely feeling, but we'll stick together and rally up."
As expected it was physical (the Bengals ran it a season-high 32 times while the aggressive Chiefs sacked them a season-high six times), emotional (the shove fest between Ja'Marr Chase and L'Jarius Sneed wasn't the only one) and all-out.
"Every guy left it on the field," said Bengals head coach Zac Taylor.
As the players began to make their way to the buses taking them to the airport and a new year, wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins went over to Browning's locker and they talked some shop.
A catch here. A defensive look there. Chase ended up playing 73% of the plays, about the same percentage he put on the condition of his sprained shoulder that kept him out of the Pittsburgh game last week and put his status for Sunday questionable until Saturday.
In one final, ironic twist, it was Higgins who played only 30 snaps, but he returned after he missed the bulk of the first half when he re-aggravated the hamstring injury that has dogged him since October.
"A testament to the locker room," agreed Higgins, who got hurt on his only catch, a 19-yarder over the middle on the first drive of the game that converted a third-and-seven.
"We were both needed. We both made the decision. He made the decision to play the game. I made the decision to finish it out."
Chase finished with three catches for 41 yards as the Chiefs secondary had the last word with their double-double, but he was clearly not the Ja'Marr of mid-season.
"I wasn't really in the offense to make 100% every play because I was injured, so they took a little bit off me," Chase said. "Once Tee went down, that's when they started to move me around a little bit. I just had to suck it up. We lost a lot of people this year. Even the best teams have tough times … Next man."
It was fitting Sunday's discussion centered on injuries. Ever since Burrow strained his calf in the second practice of training camp and missed the next five weeks, the season has been one long "Wait and see."
"I've been playing through it. A lot of have guys are playing through it," Hubbard said. "No one has folded. No one has batted an eye."
And so it was that Sunday's game was a microcosm of an 8-8 season that has had its share of inconsistency.
Talk about not batting an eye. In the Arrowhead den of din, the Bengals jumped to a 17-7 lead in the first 23 minutes under the clever, resourceful guidance of Browning, playing at times like his Super Bowl MVP opposite number Patrick Mahomes. Extending plays and diving for first downs and touchdowns. With 24 runs in the first half, most in the Zac Taylor era, the Bengals had the ball for nearly 22 minutes while keeping the Chiefs' pass rush at bay.
The defense also came up with one of their signature turnovers. This one by, who else? Trey Hendrickson, their Pro Bowl edge whose 17th sack of the season was also a strip of Mahomes that Browning converted into a touchdown.
But when they were about to go up 24-13 midway through the third quarter, the game changed and went the other way after they were stuffed on a fourth-and-one run at the Chiefs 6. They got 50 yards of offense the rest of the game and Browning got sacked five times in the last 4:50 after only going down once at the hands of one of the NFL's best third down and pressure defenses.
"They started doubling guys and spying (me)," Browning said. "It was tough to be able to tell who was getting doubled. They mixed it up. Good scheme, good players. Didn't do enough to get it done."
And after the fourth-and-one, the Chiefs started two drives from their own 9. But Mahomes flipped the field with a 41-yard bomb to wide receiver Justin Watson to set up one field goal and a 67-yard lob-and-run to wide receiver Rashee Rice to set up another field goal.
All of which had slot cornerback Mike Hilton frustrated with the inconsistency.
"We're a talented defense. We take the ball away, but we give up so many explosive plays, our taking the ball away doesn't mean a damn thing," Hilton said of a defense that has been top five in turnovers pretty much all year. "We take the ball away, we limit guys to field goals, but those explosives hit us at the wrong time … When we've got them backed up, that's a chance for field position. We let them flip the field on one play. Just a domino from there."
But the Bengals know they have most of the locker room still lined up. Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., the former Chief who may be in one of those hallway photos, talked about how glad he was to be on the other side.
With maybe a wistful glance at Burrow.
"At the end of this day, the character in this locker room, coaching staff, organization, we'll be fine," said Brown as the calendar turned.