A new preseason was about to begin Saturday night. For the first time since 1964, the New York Giants entered as a team of more than popgun pride.

They entered as a team of the playoffs.

One appearance in the 1981 National Football League playoffs and strange talk swirls about these Giants. Now, some longtime Giants fans aren't ashamed to cheer openly. Forgetting Tittle, they talk title.

Wellington Mara, about to become 66, was not about to fall through the trapdoor of such high-altitude expectations.

So the president of the New York Giants, whose family has owned the team since its 1925 creation, sat in the Memorial Stadium owners box before Saturday night's Colts-Giants preseason game and merely reflected.

"We've gotten letters, many letters, from fans since last season ended, saying, 'Let's keep it up. Let's not go back to the old way,' " Mara said.

Last year, the Giants were 9-7; they got into the playoffs as a wild-card entry and beat Philadelphia, 27-21, then lost to San Francisco, 38-24, in the second round. It was a team of respect.

"It's difficult to put into words what it's like to go 18 years without making the playoffs," said Mara. "During that time, you don't realize it's been 18 years. You just think, 'One more year, one more year.' When you look back, now that's when it's tough."

Moments before kickoff, Mara added, "We've had a few years when we thought we were on the threshold, then we collapsed the following year.

"We're on the threshold again," he said, ". . . I think."

General Manager George Young has been with the Giants only three years. It's enough to know how the Joe Pisarciks and the Norm Sneads have displaced the Charlie Conerlys and the Andy Robustellis in the memories of a new Giants generation.

Prior to kickoff, Young said, "It used to be you had to hide if you were a Giant fan. Now, there is more confidence everywhere. The players aren't complaining as much. They don't question the coaching. I think there is some momentum now carrying over from last year."

As always, the Giants share the glare of Gotham with the Jets, who also made the 1981 playoffs. "What they do doesn't affect us. Anyway, the Jets are almost in another world -- they are on the other side of the East River," said Young.

It was the Jets' season-ending win that got the Giants into the playoffs last year. Wanting 1981 to represent a new start, not an aberration in Giants history, Young said, "We haven't won anything yet. To be anything, you have to be consistent."

Saturday night, the Giants were ahead, 14-12, with 1:50 to play. Coach Ray Perkins instructed third-string quarterback Mark Reed to pass on third and seven from the New York 41, instead of running out the clock and the Colts. "It was probably a bad call on my part," Perkins said.

Reed's pass was intercepted by rookie linebacker Ricky Jones and returned 45 yards to the New York two-yard line. With 17 seconds left, the Colts' Howard Jackson, a rookie running back, scored a game-winning touchdown.

For the Giants, it was grim.

In the locker room, it was quiet enough to hear the momentum of 1981 drop. Obviously, the "This is only a preseason game" sentiment was not in operation here. The prekickoff confidence of the men of the front office had momentarily melted in the postgame minds of the men of the front line.

With stern stares, linebacker Lawrence Taylor said, "Maybe we thought we were better than we were. This was really our first serious contact this year. If you ask me if this loss means we're going back to the Giants of old -- 4-12 or something -- that's crazy. We'll be back to the plateau of last year."

Last year was Taylor's first as a Giant. While he knows only of the playoffs, Harry Carson, the linebacker of seven years, knows of the poverty.

Carson said simply, "I've experienced it. A lot of these guys are young and don't know about the lean years.

"Tonight you didn't see the real 'us.' The real 'us' is last year. It was a hard-hitting defense, playing together. It was when everything clicked. Tonight was the old 'us' from the old years, the bad years."

Carson said he wasn't surprised the Giants opted to risk a pass when a run was the call of proper conservatism Saturday night.

Carson brought up the 1978 regular-season game when the Giants led the Eagles, 17-12, with 31 seconds remaining. The Eagles had no timeouts left. Instead of falling on the ball, thereby ending the game, the Giants tried a handoff, but the ball was fumbled, scooped up by Philadelphia's Herman Edwards and run 26 yards for the touchdown that gave the Eagles a 19-17 victory.

These are not the kind of memories that make Streisand sing.

Remembering this failure as clearly as the 1981 success, Carson said, "I have gotten to the point where nothing around here surprises me anymore."