CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Bengals safety Michael Thomas has never experienced better camaraderie in an NFL locker room than this season at Paycor Stadium.
"Love these dudes; love this group," said Thomas, who began his NFL career in 2013. "Special group. One of the best locker rooms I've ever been in 11 years playing in this league. It ain't close. I just see everybody showing respect, paying respect cleaning out the locker room and whatnot and trying to figure out what's next."
The Bengals cleaned out their lockers for a final time this season early Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after a 23-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium.
Cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt closed his eyes Sunday night after the game and started to replay the entire sequence of events.
"It hasn't set in," Taylor-Britt said. "I try to stay off my phone because that's all that's on my phone."
Head coach Zac Taylor said the sting from the loss may not subside anytime soon. He was proud of the team's effort all season. But, the adrenaline rush of a 10-game win streak is difficult to replace.
"You immediately feel tired this morning because you're always prepping yourself one more week, one more week," Taylor said. "And coffee — whatever you got to do to keep yourself going, the excitement and then when it ends you just get sick for like two weeks. Everybody. And your body just shuts down. I'm sure that's the point I'll hit tomorrow."
Taylor said despite the disappointment, he is grateful for the Bengals' journey. The team started with a 4-4 record before the 10-game win streak. Taylor and the players who spoke Monday said there is a strong foundation for next season.
There will be questions about which players may leave through free agency and whether any other coordinators receive other coaching opportunities.
But, those questions — along with quarterback Joe Burrow's contract extension — will be answered at another time. Monday was a time to reflect upon this season.
"At the end of the day, I was proud of the way the team represented themselves on the field yesterday," Taylor said. "We gave it our best shot, came up a little bit short, but you're able to get on that plane with head held high and go into the offseason and have a chance to reflect back on some great things that happened this year."
Cornerback Eli Apple said the chemistry among his teammates was clearly a significant factor all season. He said being a part of a Super Bowl team last season and an AFC championship opportunity Sunday night just adds to the team's relentless pursuit for success next season.
"To me, playing in these big stages gives you more motivation," Apple said. "There is nothing like it honestly. Anybody that's played on it knows the feeling. It's very intoxicating. Kind of like a drug, crazy feeling. Just chasing that every time you play. Use that as motivation every day to get better. It's the best part."
Like his teammates, linebacker Germaine Pratt wants to win. His passion for the game was on display late Sunday night during a moment that was caught on social media. On Monday, he addressed his postgame reaction to Joseph Ossai's late penalty on Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Pratt admitted he "wasn't a great teammate in the moment" but that he looking forward to the future with the Bengals.
"I want to be a part of a team that wins," said Pratt. "This team wins, so I want to be a part of it. So I want to be a part of a team that competes for championships. The brotherhood we built around here is unmatched. It's unstoppable. Nobody can break us."