When Rodney Harrison finally snatched away Donovan McNabb’s last pass, and the Philadelphia Eagles’ last chance of upsetting the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX, you could hear fans exhaling all over the region.
”I’m relieved, just relieved,” Dave Collins, 37, of West Roxbury said as he pounded his chest to signify his still-pounding heart. “I thought they would win easily, but they never make it easy.”
Collins, who watched the game at The Kells in Brighton, spoke for millions in Patriots Nation who were surprised by the drama of last night’s game, if not the outcome. He also could have been speaking for Boston police, who turned out in force and presided over street celebrations that were nearly nonexistent, in contrast to last year’s deadly riots. The crowds were miniscule, and there were just a handful of arrests.
”We did a lot of preparation. A team came together: the presidents of the universities, the heads of the student bodies at all the universities met with us, the public-service announcement we put out with [Red Sox General Manager] Theo Epstein -- there was a positive message out there,” Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said last night from Jacksonville after watching the Patriots win 24-21. Menino said the city will celebrate the team’s victory tomorrow at 11 a.m., with details to be worked out today. The mayor expressed his pleasure with the postgame calm on city streets: “The Boston police did a great job. They had enough security out there to deal with any kind of situation that came upon them.”
New England sports fans used to be known for heartbreak, not hubris. And yet, long before last night’s kickoff, many fans were already comparing the Patriots of Brady and Belichick to the great NFL dynasties of the past. Pregame jitters? Not for those who had savored two Super Bowl victories, not to mention a wildly improbable Red Sox World Series triumph, in the past three years.
At the Stadium Bar and Grill in South Boston, where silver, red, and blue balloons created a festive feeling, the crowds were still thin at 3 p.m. By that time last year, general manager Scott Kelly said, it was standing room only.
”People think it’s just a lock,” Kelly said by way of explanation. “I don’t think there’s too much anxiety about it.”
The deadlocked halftime score surprised many fans, but it wasn’t cause for alarm.
”I thought the Patriots would be doing better, but if it ends up being a close game I’ll be happy, as long as the Patriots win,” said Bridget Kelly, 24, of Allston, who also was watching the game at The Kells.
If Patriots fans were relaxed, maybe even overconfident, the police and university officials were not -- not after two post-game tragedies in the past year.
After the Patriots defeated the Carolina Panthers in last year’s Super Bowl, thousands of people, many of them students, swarmed the streets. The crowd overwhelmed the relatively small number of police officers deployed to control them, and some revelers set fires and overturned cars. James Grabowski, 21, was killed and three others were injured when the allegedly drunken driver of a sport utility vehicle drove into a crowd near Northeastern University.
Tragedy struck again last fall after the Red Sox beat the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series: Emerson College student Victoria Snelgrove died after a police officer shot her with a high-velocity pepper pellet gun during a riot near Fenway Park.
After last year’s post-Super Bowl mayhem, Menino blamed the universities and newly legal Sunday liquor sales. After meeting with representatives of 27 colleges and universities last week, Menino said the schools had agreed to “put the fear of God” into students in order to avoid a repeat of the raucous postgame celebrations.
The Boston police, who were aided by about 300 officers from other departments and agencies, began flexing their muscle long before last night’s game ended.
By 4 p.m., Department of Correction vans were lined up outside Boston Police Headquarters, ready to transport prisoners in the case of mass arrests.
In the area around Symphony Road, where Grabowski died last year, police wearing riot gear and carrying yellow batons strolled up and down Hemenway Street, supplemented by officers on motorcycles. At 7 p.m. there were no cars on the streets -- temporary signs warned motorists they would be towed if they parked there between Sunday at 8 a.m. and Monday at 2 a.m.
At around 7:15 p.m., Northeastern University students Sam Herman, 20, and Mike Leszczynski, 19, saw a surreal scene as they walked to the market for soda and chips. As they made their way up Hemenway, they saw riot police on every corner.
”It just seems kind of early for them to be here. It’s kind of freaky,” Herman said.
Scores of officers from the Boston police and other law enforcement agencies gathered in the lobby of Fenway High School on Ipswich Street to prepare for possible postgame trouble.
Universities also took extra precautions last night. Northeastern deployed its entire 50-officer police force to bolster security around campus. Hundreds of students attended three alcohol-free parties thrown on campus. Boston University also threw an alcohol-free bash in the university’s new multimillion-dollar sports arena.
The massive police presence -- and the publicity that preceded it -- had the desired effect. At the intersection of Harvard and Brighton avenues, traffic proceeded normally and only a few fans celebrated in the street. Last year at the same location, firefighters used hoses in an attempt to control a crowd that was setting fires and climbing traffic lights.
In Kenmore Square, another spot of disturbance last year, police blocked Brookline Avenue with barricades. About 75 people gathered in the street after the game, but they were more than matched by police in riot gear. Some fans were disappointed.
”One of the cops was telling us someone died and we remember that. I feel for their family, but at the same time, we want to be able to celebrate,” said Larry Falk, 39, of Newton. “Does that sound selfish? They went from letting us have some fun to totally shutting us down.”
On Hemenway Street, many students who ran downstairs to celebrate in the street were stopped on the stoops, surprised by the sheer number of officers ready to greet them. Some walked on the sidewalk, snapping pictures and cheering, but police hurried them along and ushered them indoors if they stayed outside too long.
Ewan Matsuki, 21, a Northeastern student who wore red, white, and blue beads and “Patriots” stenciled across his forehead, stopped short on his front steps when he saw the police, then ran back inside. Later, he ventured outside again to cheer with his friends, but stayed on the steps.
”It’s all about being scared,” he said. “I was expecting to have a good time and run around with my friends, but I didn’t expect so many cops out here. There are more cops than students right now.”
Matsuki’s housemate, Jon Brideau, 20, also a Northeastern student, and wearing a Brady jersey, also confined his celebrations to the stoop. “Did you see that out there?” Brideau said, sticking to the foyer of his apartment building. “It’s like Baghdad.”
At the corner of Forsyth Street and Hemenway, Ed Klotzbier, the vice president of student affairs at Northeastern University, watched students and police officers in riot gear walk past each other.
”All the warnings the [students] got, I think, they’re heeding the advice. We told students to be safe, to be at home.”
Boston Police Superintendent Robert Dunford, who was in charge of crowd control citywide, expressed relief at the small crowds and absence of chaos.
”The commissioner’s and the mayor’s efforts and outreach to students really worked,” Dunford said. “I think a lot of the kids took our message to heart.”
David Abel, Maria Sacchetti, and Suzanne Smalley of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Scott Goldstein and Michael Levenson contributed to this report