Tom Brady and the Patriots are in unfamiliar territory. (Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini)

The New England Patriots, despite indications to the contrary, are not immune to the pitfalls and problems every NFL team faces. They have seen their quarterback blow out knee ligaments and miss an entire season. They have experienced dysfunction and been blown out, at home, in the first round of the playoffs.

“I just can’t get this team to play the way we need to play,” Coach Bill Belichick said on the sideline, as picked up by “A Football Life” cameras, as the Saints routed the Patriots toward the end of the 2009 season. “I just can’t do it. It’s so [stinking] frustrating.”

The point is not that Belichick feels that kind of frustration right now, because who could know what Belichick is feeling? The point is that the Patriots turning around their season cannot be taken as a matter of course. The Patriots are almost certainly not a .500 team, and they are still a Super Bowl contender. But they need to prove it.

The Patriots enter Thursday night’s game at Tampa Bay at 2-2 and lucky not to be 1-3, with the worst-performing defense in the NFL. A month ago, they were the overwhelming favorite to win the Super Bowl and a popular choice go 16-0. Now, they are a game behind the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East.

The last time the Patriots were under .500 at least five games into the season was Week 8 of the 2002 season, the year after Tom Brady and Belichick won their first Super Bowl. It’s far from a lock they’ll avoid that fate. They have allowed opposing quarterbacks to put up obscene stats so far, and Jameis Winston has the weapons to make them pay.

Belichick will have little choice but to simplify his defense. The Patriots’ poor start owes in large part to communication breakdowns in their secondary. A short week is a hard time to fix those kinds of errors. If the Patriots do scale back what they do in the back end, how will that affect how Belichick can mix up looks against Winston?

The Patriots’ other challenge will be stopping Gerald McCoy. The best way to beat Brady is to pressure him with only four pass rushers, preferably up the middle. McCoy is one of the best interior pass rushers in the league, which means center David Andrews will be perhaps the most important Patriot on the field.

A month from now, it may seem silly to have ever question the Patriots. On Thursday night, the Patriots have an important test, a bigger game than they ever expected to have in Week 5.

>>> Cam Newton made himself look foolish Wednesday afternoon. In a news conference, Charlotte Observer reported Jourdan Rodrigue asked him a question about the routes wide receiver Devin Funchess runs. Newton started his response thusly: “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes like — it’s funny.”

The comments were not only retrograde and offensive. They were flat wrong. Women in sportswriting, in my experience, usually know more about the sports they cover than male counterparts. They have to take time to learn because they must unfairly be on guard for the nonsense Newton spewed Wednesday — from the men they cover, the men who read them and even the men who might hire them for their next jobs.

Newton doesn’t need to be vilified. He does need to realize what he said was stuck-in-the-1950s stupid, patently incorrect and wildly unfair, and he needs to apologize.

>>> Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger are in a public tiff. Brown threw a tantrum on the sideline Sunday after Roethlisberger missed him streaking open down the field. On a local radio show, Roethlisberger chastised Brown’s reaction. Joe Starkey says Roethlisberger is at fault for turning it into a story that’s still going. Martavis Bryant also chimed in.

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Ben Roethlisberger calls out Antonio Brown for throwing sideline ‘temper tantrum’

The Dallas Cowboys’ once-mighty line is suddenly weak. So are their Super Bowl chances.