Ted Lewis: It won’t be a merry little Christmas for the Saints, but change is on the way _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Saints receiver Marques Colston, quarterback Drew Brees and running back Mark Ingram walk off the field after an interception against the Atlanta Falcons in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014.

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Let your hearts be light.

From now, on our troubles will be out of sight.”

Well, actually, for the New Orleans Saints, the team’s troubles were in plain sight in Sunday’s 30-14 loss to Atlanta that brought the team’s once-seemingly-certain playoff hopes to a soul-crushing end.

And by next week, the major makeover following as disappointing a season as there has been in this franchise’s mostly star-crossed history will have begun.

The changes come amidst decreasing public optimism about the direction things are headed.

But on the day before the day before the night before Christmas — otherwise known as Monday — everyone who works at 5800 Airline Drive was on message about how important it was to finish strong Sunday at Tampa Bay ... even if the rest of the good folks of Who Datville were still depressed over losing to the Dirty Birds.

“The guys will have the right mentality,” coach Sean Payton promised. “It’s an important game for us to play. Obviously it doesn’t have the relevance that we’d hoped for. But that being said, it’s important for every player, every coach.”

Important enough that Payton quickly dismissed the notion that some players might be held out in favor of those who have spent the season either inactive on Sundays or the practice squad, even though the team’s draft position would be improved by losing.

Depending on how things fall, the Saints will be drafting anywhere between seventh and 14th in the first round. For that matter, Tampa Bay can improve its chances of landing the No. 1 pick if it loses, so there’s seemingly no incentive to win for either team.

“We’d never do that,” said Payton, who hasn’t had a team in this situation since 2008. “We’ll have our best guys out there preparing and doing everything we’d normally do if we were playing for a playoff spot.”

Of course, the game was still six days away, and injury lists can have a way of expanding when those who could give a hoot about the draft position of a team they’re not likely to be a part of anymore get to thinking about how little they have to gain by risking life and limb.

But on Monday, that wasn’t the way the players were talking.

“If you are a true professional, that means you fight until the end,” said cornerback Keenan Lewis, whose leadership position on the team has come into full focus in the past few weeks.

Added tight end Benjamin Watson, one of those whose time with the Saints could be down to its final week: “You never want to get hurt, but anytime you’re on the field, there’s that chance. We have one game left. You play because it’s your job.”

Outside linebacker Junior Galette took it a step further.

“I want to play every play,” he said. “Football’s not a job for me. It’s my life.”

Then there’s the practical side.

“Everything goes into putting your best stuff on tape,” Payton said. “When you are out there executing, functioning, you are doing it for the New Orleans Saints, you are doing it for your teammates and you are doing it for your own record or history in regards to how you are playing when other teams grade you.”

That’s the football way. It’s the ultimate team spot, and a big part of that mindset, even for professionals, is the fear of letting your teammates down. Simultaneously you’re accounting for your own self-interest.

Plus, as Payton said, the idea of tanking is anathema. There are no Philadelphia 76ers in the NFL, even if the some teams frustrate their fans by seemingly playing like it.

That has included the Saints this season, although only the most cynical would actually accuse the team of not trying. Still, when Payton says things like, despite Sunday’s loss, he felt the players “played with energy, effort and emotion,” the question arises that if a team that many picked to be a Super Bowl contender — if not the champion — could not win the worst division in NFL history, what went wrong?

Was there sufficient talent, but their hearts were two sizes too small? And what do things look like going forward?

Payton wasn’t biting on those items Monday.

“We are talking about end-of-the-season questions when we have to play Tampa Bay,” he said after one query, although he did add, “We will have a chance to look over every element as far as playing, coaching, to who is in the building.”

For a franchise that has been playing, as Payton puts it, to a certain standard since his arrival in 2006, it’s time for some serious re-evaluation, one that likely means a step back before the team is in the Super Bowl conversation again.

Except for quarterback Drew Brees (who turns 36 next month and on Sunday admitted that his career clock is ticking) and a handful of others, there are no untouchables, either in or out of uniform.

So it should be interesting. A lot more than worrying about Tampa Bay.

In fact, just leave that up to the ones who, Payton said, are expected to be approaching playing the Buccaneers as if it were the most important game of the year.

For everyone else, just do like the song says: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”

And try not to think too much about the Saints. You won’t be jolly.