Huddersfield ended a nine-game losing streak but it could have been even better after referee Lee Mason changed his mind about awarding a penalty.
A predictably scrappy game between two relegation contenders took an unexpected turn after 77 minutes when Cardiff's Joe Bennett hauled down Florent Hadergjonaj and Mr Mason pointed to the spot.
Bluebirds protests followed and Mr Mason consulted his assistant before overturning his decision – with Hadergjonaj judged to have shoved Bennett as they chased for the ball before they reached the penalty area.
MATCH FACTS, LIVE LEAGUE TABLE AND MATCH ZONE
Etheridge 6; Manga 6, Morrison 7, Bamba 6.5, Bennett 6; Gunnarsson 6.5, Arter 6; Hoilett 5.5, Camarasa 6 (Ralls 64 6), Mendez-Laing 8 (Healey 74 6); Paterson 5.5
SUBS NOT USED:
Peltier, Josh Murphy, Smithies, Reid, Cunningham.
Arter. Hoilett, Bennett
Lossl 6.5; Hadergjonaj 6, Jorgensen 6.5, Schindler 6, Durm 6; Hogg 7; Kachunga 7, Puncheon 7, Pritchard 6 (Mbenza 72 6), Billing 6; Mounie 6 (Depoitre 87)
SUBS NOT USED:
Smith, Kongolo, Hamer, Lowe, Stankovic.
Lee Mason 7
It was rare drama in a game that was otherwise short of quality. Cardiff's only consolation for failing to beat bottom-of-the-table opposition was moving out of the bottom three ahead of Newcastle's Saturday evening game at Chelsea.
With Manchester City up next, Huddersfield badly needed three points and Jason Puncheon signalled early intent on his Terriers league debut with a shot that crept just past Neil Etheridge's post.
Huddersfield bossed possession with Cardiff's threat coming on the break with two flying wingers Junior Hoilett and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing. When the latter burst clear after 10 minutes, he was taken out by Christopher Schindler, who was relieved the card was yellow rather than red.
Cardiff had the first of four penalty appeals when Hoilett tangled with Florent Hadergjonaj to reach a Mendez-Laing cross. It was worth a shout but not clearcut – and neither were the other three.
Huddersfield had only scored 13 goals in their previous 21 league games and their Achilles heel was shown when Steve Mounie got to the byline and flashed in a decent cross without a team-mate attacking the penalty area.
Mounie also gave Neil Etheridge his only action of the first half with a hooked effort tipped over by the goalkeeper
Cardiff's Harry Arter collected his sixth booking of the season for a lunge on Steve Mounie as the pressure of a relegation six-pointer festered.
Only two of Cardiff's starters cost fees which is admirable in one sense but also helped explain a lack of quality on show. Their chairman Mehmet Dalman says they'll try to make three signings in this window and have 'a lot on the boil'.
Huddersfield pressed forward in the second half albeit without much conviction against stout defending.
Puncheon had a shot deflected for the corner, Alex Pritchard uncharacteristically picked the wrong pass at the wrong time when Victor Camarasa was receiving treatment leaving Cardiff down to ten men.
Mendez-Lang, who couldn't repeat his impressive first-half showing after the interval, made way for Rhys Healey, recently returned from a loan spell at MK Dons.
Then came the big controversial moment. Jonathan Hogg spread the ball to Hadergjonaj and Bennett's intercepting header to goalkeeper Etheridge fell short, forcing the Cardiff man to give chase and bring his opponent down.
Referee Mason had no hesitation in pointing to the spot but after protest from Cardiff players, he consulted his assistant who had spotted a shove by the Huddersfield man on Bennett before the infringement in the box.
After a discussion between the two officials, the penalty decision was overturned leaving Terriers boss David Wagner with his arms outstretched in astonishment, and pain.
Laurent Depoitre's late header was clutched by Etheridge and Wagner complained to the officials at the end of 90 minutes which wouldn't have pleased either side.