Peterson, the fifth overall selection out of LSU, overshadowed the debut of No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton, who threw for a rookie-record 422 yards and two touchdowns against an interception in the loss.
The 2010 Heisman Trophy winner drove the Panthers deep into Arizona (1-0) territory in the waning minutes, but failed to convert a 4th-and-5 from the 11-yard line.
Still, Newton became the first rookie to throw for more than 400 yards in his first NFL game, breaking the debut passing record of 302 yards previously held by Peyton Manning.
"We were extremely close to winning," said Newton, who threw a 77-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith in the game, "but we just gotta go back and get better."
Smith caught eight passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns for the Panthers (0-1), who went 2-14 a season ago.
Kevin Kolb, acquired by the Cardinals in the offseason from Philadelphia, enjoyed an impressive debut, throwing for 309 yards and two touchdowns on 18- of-27 passing.
Beanie Wells ran for 90 yards and a score on 18 carries for the Cardinals, who finished 5-11 last year.
"I'm not exactly sure that we would have won that game last year," said Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt. "So I was proud of the way our team played and responded."
Early in the fourth quarter, Early Doucet caught a short pass from Kolb over the middle, found a seam and rumbled up the sideline for a 70-yard score to tie the game at 21-21.
The Panthers moved into Arizona territory on their next drive. Facing a 3rd- and-10 from the 44, Newton was brought down in the backfield by Richard Marshall. The ensuing punt would decide the game.
Peterson fielded the ball at the 11-yard line and outran the opposition, diving, ball outstretched, into the end zone for a 28-21 Cardinals lead.
The Panthers responded, however, as Newton completed a 23-yard pass to Smith. An additional 11 yards were tacked on due to Clark Haggans' roughing the passer penalty, setting up a 1st-and-10 from the 11-yard line.
Four incompletions appeared to stall the drive, but Cardinals veteran linebacker Joey Porter was called for an offsides infraction, giving the Panthers new life.
Following a punt on the Panthers' opening possession, Kolb led the team 54 yards down the field, taking a 7-0 lead on Wells' seven-yard touchdown spurt.
Newton responded, unleashing a 77-yard touchdown strike to Smith on the third play of the Panthers' ensuing drive.
Early in the second quarter, the Cardinals worked their way to the Carolina four-yard line before a Kolb fumble was recovered in the backfield by the Panthers' Thomas Davis.
On their next possession, the Cardinals again missed an opportunity when Jay Feely's 36-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left.
Following the miss, Newton threw a pick to Daryl Washington, but the play was negated due to a roughing the passer call on Marshall. Newton capitalized, tossing a 26-yard touchdown to Smith for a 14-7 Panthers lead at the half.
Early in the third quarter, Washington picked off Newton. This time, the play stood, and the Cardinals took advantage on their next play. Kolb eluded a blitz and rolled to his right to find a wide-open Jeff King for a game-tying 48-yard strike.
Newton then showed his mettle, leading Carolina on eight-play, 80-yard touchdown march. He completed passes of 22 and 43 yards to tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen, respectively -- both of whom were acquired in the offseason. The drive was capped by Newton's one-yard touchdown plunge.
Carolina has dropped its past nine road games...The Cardinals snapped a seven- game losing streak in the series...Panthers middle linebacker Jon Beason re- injured his left ankle during the third quarter and was carted off the field. He had missed practice time during the week due to the injury.