Carolina (9-5) snapped a three-game losing streak to earn its second playoff berth.
``It's just been a bunch of good people doing their job well,'' coach John Fox said. ``We haven't arrived yet, but we've sure made a lot of progress.''
Eight of Carolina's victories have come in the final two minutes or in overtime. Carolina tied an NFL record with its seventh win by three points or less this season -- the Cardinals did it in 1998.
``Are we playing our best football right now? Probably not,'' Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme said. ``But we still got the win, and that's an encouraging sign.''
Arizona's Neil Rackers, who missed a 35-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, kicked a 44-yarder with 1:15 to play to tie it at 17-all.
Delhomme, who completed 20 of 32 passes for 236 yards, connected with Steve Smith five times for 41 yards in a 13-play, 44-yard drive to set up the winning field goal.
The Cardinals tried, but failed, to get pressure on Delhomme as the Panthers drove for the winning score.
Second-year quarterback Josh McCown, in his first NFL start, had his first pass returned 35 yards by Mike Minter for a touchdown, then regrouped to direct two time-consuming TD drives and Arizona (3-11) led 14-7 at the half.
``I tell you what, I like him,'' Minter said of McCown. ``I told him after the game he's going to be a good quarterback. Why? Because he doesn't let bad things get him down. He came back and put two drives together with his legs and his arms. That shows me a lot about his character.''
McCown, starting in place of Jeff Blake, completed 14 of 25 for 172 yards with that one costly one interception.