New York Giants Coach Bill Parcells says his team plays best when it's in trouble. "I think we are better when we're scared, when we're threatened," he said yesterday.

Thanks to the muddled nature of this season's National Football Conference playoff picture, it's still a bit uncertain whether the Giants (9-6) are in that position today when they play the New Orleans Saints (6-9) at 12:30 p.m. at Giants Stadium.

The Giants lost control of their destiny when they were defeated by St. Louis, 31-21, last Sunday, and cannot win the NFC East, no matter what happens this weekend. The winner of the Washington-St. Louis game Sunday at RFK Stadium wins the division.

If only the rest of their story were as simple.

The Giants entered today's game knowing a victory last night by the Los Angeles Rams over the San Francisco 49ers would have helped them considerably. But the Rams lost, 19-16, meaning for the Giants to get a wild card berth, Dallas, which plays Miami Monday night, and St. Louis would have to lose. It does not matter whether the Giants win or lose.

"It's a very exhilarating time," Parcells said, "and also a great experience of frustration, to get so close to winning it all. I'm rooting for the Redskins, and that's the first time I've ever said that."

Odds makers have made the Giants eight-point favorites over New Orleans. Don't try to slip that one by Parcells, who is in his second year as head coach after a 3-12-1 beginning in 1983.

"We're not through (with the season) yet," he said. "I remember Buffalo and Dallas (the then-winless Bills upset Dallas, 14-3). That game is the classic example. And how about that Kansas City-Seattle game?" (The Chiefs upset the Seahawks, 34-7.)

Injuries have hit the Giants especially hard this week. Cornerback Mark Haynes, who sprained his knee in the third quarter of the loss to St. Louis last week, was placed on injured reserve yesterday. The Giants reactivated wide receiver Earnest Gray, who broke his right hand Nov. 11.

Ken Daniel, who was beaten by Roy Green for a 35-yard touchdown in the St. Louis game, likely will replace Haynes, a Pro Bowl starter, in the starting lineup today.

Another cornerback, former free agent Elvis Patterson, injured his ankle in the St. Louis game and is listed as questionable.

To add some depth to the defensive backfield, the Giants this week signed former Redskins cornerback LeCharls McDaniel.

The Giants' offensive line also is ailing. Left guard Billy Ard (knee) was placed on injured reserve this week; rookie David Jordan will start in his place.

But the Saints, who lost, 24-21, to Cincinnati last week, might be in even worse shape. Quarterback Dave Wilson, who is expected to start today, could not finish practice Thursday and will undergo surgery on the rotator cuff in his injured right (throwing) shoulder after the season, according to published reports out of New Orleans.

"The bone would have to be sticking out for me not to play," Wilson told the New Orleans Times-Picayune/States-Item. If he cannot play, Richard Todd, who was traded by the Jets last season, might be reunited with the fans -- and boos -- of New York.