New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady sits on the bench...

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady sits on the bench during the first half of a game against the Houston Texans. (Dec. 1, 2013) Credit: AP

With these four words -- repeated over and over for emphasis -- Bill Belichick told you all you needed to know about why he's unwilling to make any definitive determination about what's wrong with his struggling Patriots.

"We're on to Cincinnati," Belichick said when asked about how unusual it is to see New England at 2-2 after a horrendous Monday night loss to the Chiefs.

Asked about the coach's reference to Tom Brady's age when the Patriots drafted quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round, Belichick ignored the question and pointed to Sunday night's opponent at Gillette Stadium:

"We're on to Cincinnati."

And in response to a follow-up about Brady being 37, he interrupted the questioner:

"We're on to Cincinnati."

And so it goes for Belichick, who is in the wholly unfamiliar position of having to deal with the possibility that his team and his future Hall of Fame quarterback are on the decline -- and that the Patriots' domination of the AFC East finally may be coming to an end after more than a decade of excellence.

Before we go any further with this idea, though, a word of caution: Despite the Patriots' problems, it's premature to make any definitive conclusions about whether their reign is ending. Sorry, I'm not willing to bet against Belichick and Brady. At least not yet.

The Patriots certainly aren't used to these early-season struggles, but they've been in similar spots before. In 2012, they were 2-2 but won 10 of their next 12 games. And in 2002, the year after they won their first of three Super Bowl titles, they were 3-4 before finishing 9-7.

But coming off a 41-14 loss in Kansas City, and with Brady off to a sluggish start with only four touchdown passes and completing less than 60 percent of his passes, questions are bubbling to the surface about whether the Patriots are losing their grip on the AFC East.

Brady's 79.1 rating is well off his career mark (95.4), and his rating has decreased each year since 2010's 111.0. It was 87.3 last season. He certainly doesn't look comfortable, although it is difficult to determine why. His arm seems lively enough and his competitive fires certainly are burning white hot. Just look at him on the sideline when a drive ends without a score.

But his decision-making appears off, he's rushing many of his throws because of poor pass protection, and a suspect group of wide receivers is having an adverse impact on his numbers.

Throw in the fact that Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is coming off knee surgery a year after he returned from a back injury, has only 13 catches for 147 yards and three touchdowns, and Brady's offense is still a work in progress.

Brady has often talked about wanting to play into his 40s, but for the first time in his career, he is facing questions about whether he is closer to the end than he might want to believe.

"I'm trying to do the best job I can do," he said. "I'll try to go out there and play better and play as best as I possibly can each week. Some weeks it looks better than others, some weeks it doesn't, but you've got to believe in your process and what you're doing. It's served me well.

"I'm going to try to keep working hard on the things I'm not doing a good job of, and hopefully that helps our team score more points."

Brady now hopes he can recapture the form that made him one of the most dominant quarterbacks in NFL history. And while Belichick won't look to the past for any answers facing his team, Brady takes comfort in the fact that he has overcome previous rough patches.

"We've always found a way to kind of grind our way through tough times," he said. "Losing on the road on a Monday night is always tough, but obviously we're not doing good enough, so we've got to work harder. We've got to understand what we need to do better individually so it helps each other collectively. I'm going to try to do the best I can do."

Belichick began preparing for life after Brady by drafting former Eastern Illinois star Garoppolo in the second round of this year's draft. Like any good organization, you have to cover your bases at every position, especially quarterback, and Garoppolo could be Brady's heir apparent. But the best-case scenario for Brady is that he can recover from his early-season struggles and recapture his form, keeping Garoppolo as his understudy for the foreseeable future.

Belichick will give Brady plenty of time to work his way out of his funk. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can do his quarterback a favor by trying to establish the run more consistently and calling more short passes so Brady can get the ball out of his hands and not fall victim to the kind of relentless pass rush the Chiefs featured.

Belichick's defense can't be overlooked as a contributing factor in the uneven performance of the first month. The rushing defense is a mediocre 22nd in the NFL, and the Patriots have given up an average of 22.5 points per game.

The Patriots' slow start has benefited the rest of the AFC East, particularly the Jets, who have had their own issues. But even after three straight losses, they are only one game behind the Patriots, who are tied with Buffalo and Miami.

The Jets now run the gantlet of elite quarterbacks: Philip Rivers on Sunday in San Diego, Peyton Manning's Broncos the following week at home, and Brady's Patriots in New England in a Thursday night game.

Brady hopes to have recovered by then from his early-season issues, but if there are more struggles ahead, there will be more questions about whether this really is the beginning of the end for one of the NFL's all-time greats.

It's something neither Brady nor Belichick wants to see. No wonder they'd rather not talk about it.

On to Cincinnati.