The Los Angeles Chargers haven’t been to the playoffs since 2013, and a 0-4 record Oct. 1 wouldn’t have led many to think that would change this season.
So it was hard for outside linebacker Kyle Emanuel to hide his enthusiasm about the Chargers going to Kansas City on Saturday night with the AFC West lead on the line.
“It’s awesome,” Emanuel said. “The last two years we’ve been pretty much out of it at this point. It’s just exciting and now, for us, pretty much every game is a playoff game. And this is why you want to play in the NFL — to play in Arrowhead with the season on the line.”
As the native of Schuyler, Nebraska, says, the Chargers (7-6) are enjoying the ride. He also appreciates the recent success with all that has been involved in his third season:
» The Chargers have been 0-4 and 3-6, but now take a four-game winning streak to Kansas City (7-6) for a 7:25 p.m. game.
» Offseason staff changes gave Los Angeles a new coach (Anthony Lynn) and defensive coordinator (Gus Bradley).
» And Emanuel has lived through the Chargers’ move from San Diego to Los Angeles, which includes playing home games at a 27,000-seat multi-use stadium, holding workouts on a pair of 70-yard practice fields and a training camp that included living out of a hotel and making two bus trips to practice every day.
“You almost have to put that aside,” Emanuel said. “When you talk about it, yeah, it was a lot. Just ‘distraction’ is the first word that comes to mind. But for me and a lot of guys on the team, you just have to kind of ignore it. There’s just so much going on when you’re moving cities, and you just have to focus on what you can control.”
That also goes for the Chargers trying to lure new fans after playing in San Diego for 56 years.
“L.A. likes winners and they like to be entertained, and that’s kind of what we’ve got to keep doing,” Emanuel said.
Defense has been a big part of the turnaround, with the Chargers allowing a combined 29 points in their past three games. Emanuel credits a lot of that to feeling more comfortable and familiar with Bradley’s system.
Emanuel, a fifth-round draft pick out of North Dakota State in 2015, has 28 tackles and three pass breakups. His first interception of the season last week against Washington was followed by a 23-yard return, barely stopped from scoring by a lineman getting just enough of his right leg.
“I tried to bring those running back skills back to life a little bit,” said Emanuel, who played some in the backfield at Schuyler High.
“But this is probably the most confident I’ve been this season. I just take advantage of every opportunity to get on the field, and it just seemed Sunday that I had a couple plays go my way.”
Emanuel is up to 23 career starts with eight more this season, and a year ago finished with 58 tackles.
His success hasn’t been totally unexpected. Emanuel won the 2014 Buck Buchanan Award as the top defensive player in the FCS, and NDSU has eight players on NFL rosters and four draft picks in the past four years.
But turn back the clock a little further and Emanuel makes for a good story.
There was no Rivals.com recruiting ranking for him coming out of Schuyler, and he was a Class B all-state linebacker but not a first- or second-team All-Nebraska pick. It was mostly Division II offers other than North Dakota State, though Emanuel said South Dakota State was maybe close.
“I do reflect on it sometimes, just look around — whether it’s on a game day or a regular day — and realize where I am,” he said. “You get caught up in the daily grind and sometimes you forget how fortunate you are, and how hard you worked to get where you are. Going to college at NDSU, I was just going to go and play as hard as I could and as good as I could, but some things fell into place, I had a good run and here I am.”
Emanuel also was used to winning in Fargo, with the Bison going 58-3 with four FCS titles his last four years. San Diego then went 4-12 and 5-11 his first two seasons before the 0-4 start in 2017.
But Lynn and the Chargers wouldn’t have so much on the line Saturday night if they hadn’t held it together.
“I think the coaches and the players alike did a good job of doing the exact same thing,” Emanuel said. “We talk about good teams, win or lose, you prepare the exact same way — and that’s what you saw here. There wasn’t finger-pointing, there wasn’t any lack of energy at practice. It’s just one of those things, we kind of felt like we had to learn how to win a game and then you could get it turned around.”