The midfielder's second-half header was the difference in a nervy 1-0 home win over Daegu of South Korea, who had only needed to avoid defeat to progress.
Fabio Cannavaro's Evergrande will play fellow Chinese side Shandong Luneng, home to former Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini, in the knock-out rounds.
Cannavaro's side knew they had to beat Daegu to leap-frog their visitors into the runners-up spot in Group F behind Sanfrecce Hiroshima of Japan.
Without the former Benfica player, Evergrande lacked invention in the final third of the pitch, while Daegu were happy to sit back.
Playing on the break at Tianhe Stadium, Kim Dae-Won went close after 15 minutes for Daegu, his strike from distance whistling past the post.
Cannavaro's men went into the second half knowing that they had 45 minutes to save themselves from an early exit.
Paulinho tried to win a penalty with a theatrical dive as the Chinese side became increasingly desperate.
But on 64 minutes they got the breakthrough when the 30-year-old Paulinho rose to head in after a corner.
The ball appeared to glance off a Daegu player on the way in but the Brazilian international gleefully claimed it.
In the other match in Group F, Sanfrecce won 3-1 at Melbourne Victory and will play fellow J-League team Kashima Antlers next.
The former AC Milan star, who turns 33 next month, announced on Tuesday that he will pursue a new challenge after one injury-disrupted season at the Australian club.