Sauce Gardner rolled onto his back and pretended to make snow angels on a green turf.
A hellish start for Gardner and the Jets turned into a heavenly finish Sunday when Gardner forced a fourth-down incompletion by playing tight coverage 65 yards from the line of scrimmage to clinch a 20-17 victory over the heavily favored Bills. Teammate Quincy Williams had been urging Gardner, who contributed seven tackles and an interception to the win, to dust off the snow-angel celebration that he unveiled earlier this season.
“When I was on the ground after that pass breakup,” Gardner said, “I was thinking, ‘It’s a great opportunity for me to do that.’ ”
Gardner’s mind quickly shifted to another thought, too. The Jets (6-3) will enjoy a bye week before getting another shot at the Patriots, who won the first meeting between the teams last week, 22-17, after Michael Carter II’s defensive touchdown that would’ve opened up a 14-point second-quarter lead was negated by penalty.
“It took me a little minute to bounce back. I’m like, ‘No way we lost that game,’ ” Gardner said. “It took me until Wednesday when we had practice to be like, ‘That game’s behind me. I have a great group of receivers to go against.’ I can’t wait to go against [the Patriots] again, but I can’t wait for the bye week, either.”
Gardner allowed a 42-yard completion on the first play against the Bills. Film study of the pre-snap motion told him that Stefon Diggs was going to run a different, quicker route. All of a sudden Diggs was behind him.
“[Sauce] got beat on that first play on that double move but he still stayed poised and kept himself in the game,” head coach Robert Saleh said. “He wasn’t even fazed by it.”
Safety Jordan Whitehead picked up Gardner with an interception two plays later. Gardner’s interception came after a strange 12-minute delay for a broken SkyCam wire stalled the Jets’ offensive momentum and quarterback Zach Wilson promptly lost a fumble when play resumed.
“Whenever something goes bad, a lot of people start complaining,” Gardner said. “But you have to be the ones defensively to say, ‘Let’s get the ball right back. Why not us?’ That was the perfect situation for me to do that.”
Gardner forced Gabriel Davis to the sideline and read quarterback Josh Allen’s eyes. He returned his interception 16 yards to the 19 to set up the short-drive touchdown that put the Jets in front, 17-14, late in the third quarter. D.J. Reed bottled up Diggs for zero second-half catches.
“I feel there ain’t nobody doing it like we’re doing it,” Gardner said when asked if he and Reed are the best cornerback tandem in the NFL.
Gardner-Davis was the matchup again on fourth-and-21 in the final minute, when Allen uncorked a deep ball into one-on-one coverage. Gardner never turned his head but lifted his arm just as the ball arrived to disrupt the catch.
“I was looking at his eyes,” Gardner said. “I didn’t see any signs of the ball getting thrown short, so I couldn’t believe it. I kept seeing his eyes and I was like, ‘Oh man, he wants that ball, for sure.’ I just had to stay calm, don’t panic. He was trying to push off a little bit, but I stayed poised and I made the play.”