A Quarterback Showdown Is Decided by a Rookie Cornerback

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Three years ago, Jaylen Watson was working for his mother at a Wendy’s in Augusta, Ga. He was making $7.50 an hour and getting his grades in order. On Thursday, he was the most important player on the field for Kansas City, though one that few had heard of.

Watson was getting this opportunity to start at cornerback against the Los Angeles Chargers and their All Pro quarterback Justin Herbert because Kansas City’s first-round pick, Trent McDuffie, pulled a hamstring in the season opener.

Watson made the most of it.

With Kansas City and Los Angeles tied, 17-17, in the fourth quarter and the Chargers two yards from taking the lead, Watson stepped in front of tight end Gerald Everett, picked off a throw from Justin Herbert and rocketed 99 yards for a game changing pick-6

When he got to the end zone, Watson confessed that he really did not know what to do.

“The ball just ended up in my chest, and I took it home,” he said. “It was a surreal feeling.”

It was a back breaker for the Chargers, who were trying to do something that they had not done in 10 years: begin the season 2-0.

Instead, Kansas City built on the play to win Thursday night’s game, 27-24.

They did it with a pieced together team. The kicker Matt Ammendola was signed this week to replace the injured Harrison Butker. He booted two field goals, including the eventual game winner, a 31-yarder with over three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

Facing his team’s final possession, Herbert drove the Chargers 73 yards in two minutes, punctuating the drive with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Josh Palmer. It was not enough.

Los Angeles tried an onside kick that bounced Kansas City’s way, and Patrick Mahomes knelt out the rest of the clock.

What was supposed to be a pinball style scoring fest propelled by Herbert and Mahomes turned into a battle between two oft-maligned defenses. In taking a 10-7 lead into halftime, the Chargers had bullied Kansas City’s offensive line, stuffing the run and harassing Mahomes deep behind the line of scrimmage on virtually every play.

When Mike Williams made a one-handed grab for a 15-yard touchdown on Los Angeles’s opening drive of the second half, the rebooted Chargers looked poised to run Kansas City off their home field.

Instead, a patient Mahomes picked the Chargers apart. On the ensuing possession, Mahomes pitched passes to 10 different teammates, 6, 8, and 12 yards at a time. And when he saw Justin Watson, another newcomer, streaking down the middle of the field by his lonesome, Mahomes winged a pass 41 yards for the touchdown to narrow the Chargers’ lead to 17-14.

Jaylen Watson and his defensive teammates apparently were rejuvenated. Defensive lineman Chris Jones and George Karlaftis chased Herbert throughout the second half, and Mike Danna’s hit on Herbert with four minutes remaining briefly sent him out of the game.

“The defense kept bringing it and bringing it,” said Kansas City Coach Andy Reid.

Herbert returned and finished with a valiant 334 yards on 33 of 48 passing, with three touchdowns. Mahomes, perhaps missing Tyreek Hill, his top threat from a season ago who was traded to the Miami Dolphins in the off-season, racked up 236 yards and two touchdown on 24 of 35 passing.

But it was Watson who delivered the heroics. His time at home with his mother made him realize how badly he missed football. Watson had a couple of scholarship offers from small schools, but chose instead to go to Ventura College in California, where he earn JUCO All American recognition both years.

In 2019, Watson signed with the University of Southern California. But his grades were not in order, and the offer was rescinded. His mother managed a Wendy’s and put him to work.

“I learned resilience,” Watson said. “Nothing was ever given to me, and I think that’s my edge. I bring hunger. I bring anger to the football field.”

At 6-2 and 196 pounds, Watson impressed his teammates in training camp and not just because of his physical gifts.

“He’s confident; I mean that’s big when you’re a corner, because you’re going to get beat sometimes and you’re going to have to step back up,” said Mahomes, his far more famous teammate. “He’s a big, tall corner, physical, gets his hands on you, but he’s fast enough to run. He’s someone that’s made plays. Whenever his number’s been called, he’s made plays.”

When Watson found out that he was starting, he called home and made sure there was a hometown crowd in Arrowhead Stadium for his first N.F.L. start.

Did his boss from Wendy’s make the trip?

“Yes, my Mom showed up,” he said. “Not my boss from Wendy’s.”

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