The QPR captain hit a stunning goal midway through the second half at Loftus Road to dent Wolves' promotion hopes and fire his own side into the play-off picture.
Rangers were good value for their win in what was new boss Paulo Sousa's sternest test since he took over last month.
The former Portugal midfielder passed with flying colours while opposite number Mick McCarthy became the latest victim of the Manager of the Month curse.
McCarthy's side, who had won seven of their previous eight games, were uncharacteristically jittery at the back, while their 27-goal strikeforce of Chris Iwelumo and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake barely had a sniff.
Their lead at the top has been halved, with second-placed Birmingham beating Watford earlier in the day, while Rangers are up to seventh and level on points with Sheffield United - who occupy the final play-off place.
Michael Mancienne, the young Chelsea defender who was called into Fabio Capello's last England squad, endured a tough return to the ground where he spent 18 months on loan, and his early mistake almost let in Patrick Agyemang.
Mancienne missed Hogan Ephraim's through-ball to allow Agyemang a free run on goal but Wolves goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey spread himself well to block the striker's effort.
Wolves got their first sight of goal when Ebanks-Blake laid the ball back to Dave Edwards, who curled a left-foot shot just wide of Radek Cerny's post, before David Jones sent a free-kick wide.
Hennessey then caused a mild panic in his own penalty area when he came for, and completely missed, Damion Stewart's free-kick - but Dexter Blackstock was unable to take advantage.
Hennessey made amends with saves from Heidar Helguson and substitute Lee Cook before the break, and was immediately back in action after the interval following some more slack defending.
The Wolves rearguard allowed a long clearance from Cerny to bounce and let in Helguson, but his shot was too close to Hennessey who saved with his legs.
At the other end, Cerny was forced to fingertip another Jones free-kick around the post before denying Ebanks-Blake from close range.
But just as Wolves were at their most threatening, it was Rangers who took the lead courtesy of a memorable strike from Rowlands.
The midfielder collected the ball at the edge of the area in the 63rd minute and unleashed a vicious, dipping shot which flew over Hennessey and into the back of the net.
Wolves substitute Sam Vokes was denied an equaliser by a fine diving save from Cerny, while Rangers' Samuel Di Carmine shaved a post at the end of a stoppage-time breakaway.
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