Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner runs back an interception during the...

Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner runs back an interception during the second half of an NFL game against the Bills on Nov. 6 in East Rutherford, N.J. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – Sauce Gardner has learned something important from his first 12 NFL games.

“That I can go against the best,” the Jets rookie cornerback told Newsday after practice Wednesday.

Gardner leads all AFC cornerbacks in Pro Bowl voting and is certainly one of the top candidates for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Gardner said he hasn't really thought about winning that award. Then, he thought for a second and concluded that he is worthy of Defensive Rookie of the Year.

“I’ve been going up against some tough receivers, some of the best.” Gardner said at his locker. “I feel like that is one of the things that set me apart from not all the corners of the league but the rookie cornerbacks and defensive rookies in general.

“I don’t think no other corners went up against the guys that I’ve been going against and had the success that I’ve had.”

Gardner, Seattle cornerback Tariq Woolen and Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson are the top candidates for the award. Gardner can help himself on Sunday when he faces another top receiver for the second time: Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs.

The play of the cornerbacks Gardner and D.J. Reed are one of the reasons the Jets (7-5) are in the hunt for a postseason berth and have one of the top defenses in the league.

Thus far, Gardner has lined up opposite Ja’Marr Chase, Tyreek Hill, Diggs, Justin Jefferson, Tee Higgins and Jaylen Waddle. Gardner leads the NFL with 15 passes defensed and has two interceptions. He’s only allowed one touchdown in coverage.

Gardner wishes he was thrown at more because he feels his interceptions would be higher. Woolen has six picks.

“You got a guy like Sauce who cherishes to go against guys like Justin Jefferson and Diggs and Tyreek Hill and Ja’Marr Chase and the different guys that him and DJ Reed have had to play,” Robert Saleh said.

Saleh has said if Gardner gets more takeaways teams will just stop throwing at him altogether, that he will be removed from the quarterback’s progression.

One of Gardner’s interceptions came against Josh Allen when the Jets beat the Bills, 20-17, in Week 9. It was an interesting day for Gardner, to say the least, but he feels it showed why he’s mentally strong enough to be a top corner in the NFL.

On the Bills’ first play from scrimmage, Diggs beat Gardner with a double move and was wide open for a 42-yard completion. Gardner didn’t let it affect him.

In the third quarter, he had the big takeaway and 16-yard return that led to a touchdown. The game was sealed with Gardner in coverage on Gabriel Davis, who couldn’t hold onto a terrific throw from Allen on fourth down.

“Just always had the next-play mentality,” Gardner said. “Not saying that I don’t always have that, but that game I feel like it showcased me having that mentality because I gave up the explosive. Fortunately it didn’t lead to points. We got a takeaway that drive.

“I had a few chances to be able to make a few plays on defense for my team. It wouldn’t have happened if I would have still been dwelling on what happened on the first play of the game.”

This is a huge game for both teams. The Bills (9-3) currently are the AFC’s No. 1 seed and the Jets are fighting to make the playoffs. They know the Bills will be looking for payback from a game when Allen wasn’t at his best. It was the only time this season that he didn’t throw a touchdown.

Allen won’t want a repeat performance, which means he could do what Gardner wants and throw at him. Gardner doesn’t want to let up any explosive plays, but if he does he will look to quickly move on to the next play.

“When I was younger like Little League I’d be mad at everybody,” Gardner said. “Since high school, college, I’ve always just bounced back because I know I’ll make more good plays than bad ones.”

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