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Bowl ticket or no, Houston beckons

HOUSTON -- Memo to Patriots fans: Houston has you covered.

Thousands of football-hungry fans from Boston and beyond will descend upon the Bayou City starting late today and tomorrow for Super Bowl XXXVIII. But only a select few possess tickets to Sunday's big game. How, then, to satiate the masses who will take in the Patriots-Panthers face-off from a barstool?

Fear not. New Englanders with or without the coveted tickets can find something to do within Houston's 633 square miles, as the nation's fourth most populous city welcomes an estimated 100,000 tourists. They might even find something resembling the comforts of home, from the traffic to the trendy shopping to the . . . well, not the weather. (Temperatures this week are forecast to be in the 60s, with nary a snowflake in sight. Sorry.)

First things first: A bar outside downtown Houston has already established itself as headquarters for Patriots fans, plastering banners and pennants outside and flying the Patriots' flag. The Tavern on Gray expects hundreds of Pats fans to belly up to its 187-foot-long bar, which owner Charlie Watkins contends is the longest in the Lone Star State.

Watkins is a seventh-generation Texan whose forebears fought in the Battle of San Jacinto. (That was the battle that the Texan army won in 1836 after being crushed by Mexican forces at the Alamo.) He is coy about his football loyalties, although he rooted for the Patriots during the playoffs. But he professes admiration for one team: Boston sports fans.

"The Patriots bring Boston fans down here, which is a fun, fun football group," said Watkins, 47. "I feel Houston is very, very fortunate to have Patriots fans, because they're a big, loyal fan base coming into Houston. And that makes it much, much better to cheer the Patriots on."

Watkins transformed his bar into a Patriots fan den after receiving a telephone call from Brad Darr, a Pats follower who owns a bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans. During New England's Super Bowl appearance in the Big Easy two years ago, Darr remade his tavern into Patriots central, and he plans to unleash the same hoopla at Watkins's place.

Darr is not a man who fools around. He and up to 45 Patriots fans flying in from New England will pack two recreational vehicles and drive to Houston tomorrow morning, heading straight for Watkins's bar. On Saturday night, they plan a voodoo ceremony with an unsuspecting stuffed panther.

"We've got some pins we're going to be sticking into the panther to get the crowd riled up," said Darr, 35. "After sticking some pins in, the last thing we do is cut the head off. That's what we did with a ram the last Super Bowl."

The Patriots, you recall, won that game against the St. Louis Rams 20-17.

New England fans can also celebrate at a free downtown street party called The Main Event beginning tonight and lasting through Super Bowl Sunday. In addition, the NFL Experience at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston will let children and adults test their throwing, blocking, kicking, and other pigskin skills.

A word to the wise: Do not expect downtown Houston to look anything like Faneuil Hall-Quincy Market. Large swaths of the business district are essentially empty canyons amid the skyscrapers, devoid of life after quitting time.

But parts of downtown have come to life. With $4 billion in public and private money pumped into the area since 1995, new apartments, restaurants, and clubs are enlivening the streets of the financial district. Driving in Houston is all but unavoidable, and that means navigating Houston's freeways. Highways in Houston expand to as many as 14 lanes, seemingly delighting motorists who weave in and out of lanes because, well, they can. Aaron Katersky, a Scituate native who traverses the city as a reporter for Houston's leading news radio station, KTRH-AM, sees it daily."Boston drivers are obnoxious; Houston drivers are oblivious," said Katersky, 28. "It's one Texan in one big truck thinking he owns the road, and he's not trying to be mean, just sort of meandering, changing lanes at will. So you end up with these people who are all over the road in these enormous vehicles."